(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - They embody four uniquely American stories. They offer messages of transformation with two distinct world views. They pursue one goal.
Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama and their respective running mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, begin the final eight weeks of their historic and remarkably close presidential contest ready to rewrite national politics.
Race, gender and age barriers are at stake. A shifting political landscape will take the fight to previously ignored states. Advertising will suffocate the airwaves with intensely negative exchanges. Debates could be as decisive as the final Carter-Reagan debate of 1980. And more money will be spent by the hour in politics than ever before.
Armed with a bigger bankroll and a partisan Democratic advantage, Obama is competing in more states than John Kerry did in 2004, including typically Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina.
Soon, strategists predict, the number of states in play will narrow to nine or 10, resembling past elections with Virginia the new battleground in the mix.
As election day closes in, they say, McCain needs to shore up his position in previous Republican states and hope the only states left in play are Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
"Whoever wins two out of those three will probably win the election," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign and is close to the McCain camp.
Obama and McCain march into the fall campaign with their parties newly unified — tasks they accomplished by each reaching out to a female political figure. Obama joined hands with former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton and sealed the deal with many of her supporters. But McCain's selection of Palin proved most stunning and has the potential to change the game.
Obama sits atop a mountain of advantages. President Bush and the Republican Party remain highly unpopular, Democrats have displayed greater intensity, Obama has expanded the electorate, and he has set huge records for political money.
McCain, however, has managed to remain far more popular than his party or his president. Independent voters and even some Democrats remain unsure about Obama, either because of his race or his rapid rise from obscurity.
And while Obama's election would represent a monumental milestone for the nation by putting the first black man in the White House, Palin gives voters a chance to make history, too, by electing the first woman as vice president.
The economy is a driving issue in the election and both candidates are making direct appeals to the working class.
"I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market," McCain said, using the kind of populist language usually heard at Democratic conclaves.
And Palin, upon introducing her husband, Todd, to the delegates, defied the party's antipathy toward big labor by describing him as "a proud member of the United Steelworkers' Union."
"The underlying reality of this election is the nation is fundamentally convinced we are headed on the wrong track," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser to Kerry 's 2004 campaign. "The person who convinces people they are about change will win."
In casting themselves as change agents, both candidates also are creating caricatures of each other. McCain brands Obama a mere "celebrity," and his ads say Obama represents "old ideas masquerading as change."
Obama, in turn, ties McCain to the unpopular Bush.
"My friend John and George Bush are joined at the hip. And we need a hip replacement," Biden said Saturday while campaigning at a Philadelphia union hall.
Both candidates have targeted 11 states with advertising this week. They are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. McCain and the Republican National Committee also are up with an ad in Minnesota.
Obama, however, has expanded the field for now, placing ads in Indiana, Michigan, Montana, and North Dakota.
Timing is also crucial. Five battlegrounds — North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Missouri and Michigan — begin distributing absentee ballots between Sept. 19 and Sept. 23.
McCain must ensure a state like Montana, which voted for Bush 59-39 percent over Kerry in 2004 doesn't flip. But the state has two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor. He must shore up North Dakota and hold on to other states Bush won such as Nevada and Colorado, where there's been a growth in the population of Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters.
"The secret of the next 30 days is to get these traditional Republican states back in our column," said Reed.
It won't be easy. Obama has the financial resources to keep those states competitive, forcing McCain to divert money he will desperately need in tossup states.
Palin will be McCain's ambassador to vulnerable Republican "red" states. She'll cross paths with Biden in small cities and rural hamlets in Pennsylvania and Ohio in competition for working class white men and women. McCain would be free to promote himself as a maverick and independent in states such as New Hampshire and in the suburbs and ex-urbs where independent and undecided voters might live.
McCain and Obama will face each other in debates three times, each lasting 90 minutes and one conducted in a town hall format. The first opportunity to see the two candidates side by side will be Sept. 26, at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., with domestic policy as the sole subject.
Obama has the upper hand going in, with polls showing voters trust Obama more than McCain to fix the economy. If the race is tied as the debate begins, Obama could help change the dynamic.
Vice presidential debates aren't decisive, but can put a campaign on the defensive. The public is likely to tune in to the Oct. 2 Biden-Palin debate for the novelty of it.
The next two debates favor McCain. On Oct. 7 they will meet at Washington University in St. Louis for a town hall styled meeting on any subject. McCain likes the format and uses it regularly on the stump.
A week later, the two will meet at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., to discuss foreign policy. In polls, McCain leads Obama on questions of defense and who would best deal with Iraq. That debate, held almost three weeks before election day, could prove to be as key as the final debate was for Ronald Reagan in 1980 when his performance broke him out of a tie with Jimmy Carter.
Indeed, debates are about the show — who best connects with voters on the subject at hand, who stays on message and doesn't fumble a name or a country. Who doesn't look at his watch or sigh with disdain. And, in these particular debates, how will the 72-year-old McCain compare with the 47-year-old Obama.
Obama is the first major party candidate to opt out of the general election public financing system since the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s. His fundraising has dazzled. Now Biden will be his chief fundraiser, using his connections to tap deep-pocketed trial lawyers and donors once loyal to Hillary Rodham Clinton in Florida, a top money state where he has ties to big contributors.
Obama's most powerful financial weapon is an online network of nearly 2 million donors who can respond to a money appeal with a few strokes on a keyboard. Palin's rousing convention speech Wednesday invigorated conservatives, but a call for cash that night by the Obama campaign generated $10 million in less than 24 hours.
Still, Obama will have to raise money in unprecedented sums. Democratic fundraisers say he and the Democratic National Committee, which can raise money in larger individual donations, must jointly raise $200 million to $250 million this fall to make the venture outside the public funds system worthwhile.
McCain is staying within the public system. That means he gets $84 million without effort. But to compete with Obama's money machine, the Republican National Committee is picking up the slack, already airing hybrid ads with the McCain campaign that help stretch McCain's spending limits.
McCain raised an impressive $47 million in August, a campaign record. In a testament to Palin's role, the campaign said $10 million of the total came in the three days after McCain announced her as his running mate.
The McCain campaign says its combined campaign and party resources entering the fall campaign are between $220 million and $240 million. It expects the Victory '08 committee to raise at least $60 million over the next two months.
Palin is the draw. Until the election, she's booked for fundraisers at the rate of one every two days.