The Last Leg

A campaign blog.
Nov. 3 2008 12:40 AM

The Last Leg

Hundreds of marathoners filled the lobby of the Manhattan Hilton Sunday morning. John McCain was there, too, post- SNL , lacing up his proverbial shoes, stepping into his figurative short shorts, and rubbing metaphorical Vaseline on his hypothetical inner thighs. Whereas the runners’ race was a marathon, McCain was prepping for his final sprint to Election Day.

McCain’s closing schedule is brutal: He’s visiting Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Tennessee, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada, and New Mexico before his final rally in Phoenix, Ariz. On Monday, he’s hitting seven different states. If there were any lingering questions about his physical fitness, let this settle them.

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It’s tempting to see McCain’s tour as one last desperate heave. But so far, the final sprint is devoid of resignation, nostalgia, or any other attitudes you’d associate with a losing campaign—outwardly, at least. McCain is fierce on the stump, pounding the podium and urging crowds to "fight"—a word he uses upward of a dozen times per speech. He’s usually talking about fighting for freedom and America and our children and our future, but sometimes it sounds like he’s talking about himself.

The reason: The McCain people actually think they can win this thing. Top adviser Rick Davis blasted out a memo over the weekend arguing that the national polls are narrowing so quickly that, "if the trajectory continues, we will surpass the 270 Electoral votes needed on Election Night." He also argued, fairly implausibly , that Iowa is a "very close race" (almost every poll since October has Obama up by double digits ), that Colorado is "back on the map" (the state now has a wider gap than ever ), and that McCain is making progress with Hispanic voters (Obama has been holding, if not increasing , his lead among Latinos). During a flight to Pennsylvania, Charlie Black and Sen. Sam Brownback boarded the press charter to share their optimism. "At this time four years ago, Bush was down five points" in Iowa, Black said. Now McCain is currently down by one point, according to their internal polls. (And by "internal," one reporter quipped , they mean pulled from their ass.)

The problem is, well, the evidence. The last days of a campaign always produce an overwhelming number of polls, and each campaign gets to cherry-pick its favorite outliers. I’d put a lot of stock in Mason-Dixon, too, if it was the only poll that showed me within three points in Virginia . I would also be sure to cite the national polls that show the race tightening , even though national polls are nearly meaningless now. I might also put extra trust in my internal pollster Bill McInturff, who has a reputation for being cautious. But cherry picking is still cherry picking. And meta pollsters like Pollster.com (which urges restraint at this panic-prone moment) and FiveThirtyEight make it more and more difficult to highlight your own numbers in any convincing way.

But there’s one thing you can’t spin, and that’s geography. All the states McCain is visiting in his last 24 hours are states Bush won in 2004, with the exception of Pennsylvania. Having to stop a normally safe Republican state like Indiana the day before the election is an indignity on par with riding commercial. You do it only when you have to.

Still, McCain is keeping it upbeat. He made one last stop Sunday evening in Peterborough, N.H., where he chucked his stump speech in favor of the old town-hall format. (He hasn’t taken audience questions since the string of embarrassing incidents a few weeks back.) It was like a time warp. Instead of hammering Obama and Biden for their recent slip-ups, he talked about taxes and immigration and earmarks. He addressed local issues like the Seabrook power plant and New Hampshire’s first in the nation voting status. He looked relaxed. When it came time for closing remarks, he rounded back to his customary "fight" riff. But this time, instead of shouting, he said it quietly. "We will succeed," he said. "We will win."

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.