DES MOINES, Iowa - John McCain's second visit to Iowa in less than a month is heartening Republicans who say it is proof their presidential candidate intends to compete for the state, despite polls showing him behind Democrat Barack Obama.
Democrats counter that McCain's event Tuesday shows he can't be elected president without winning in states where he trails his rival.
Republicans acknowledge that McCain is behind, but say the race is closer than the polling indicates.
"I honestly believe right now in Iowa that Obama is ahead but it is less than five (percent)," said former Iowa Republican Chairman Michael Mahaffey.
A Des Moines Register poll conducted Sept. 8-10 showed Obama ahead, 52 percent to 40 percent, while a Big Ten Battleground Poll a few days later, conducted Sept. 14-17, found the rivals tied at 45 percent.
The visit is McCain's second in less than two weeks. He has scheduled a small-business round-table in Des Moines, following up on a Sept. 18 stop in Cedar Rapids with running mate Sarah Palin. His campaign also has continued television advertising in the state at roughly the same level as Obama.
"I don't believe Sen. Obama has the lead that one or two polls indicate he does," said veteran GOP strategist Eric Woolson.
That Republican optimism comes despite voter registration trends that show Democrats have gained a more than a 100,000-person edge in Iowa. Still, the last two presidential elections were decided by razor-thin margins of 1 percentage point. Democrat Al Gore won the state in 2000, and President Bush won it during his re-election in 2004 — and independent voters still outnumber those in each of the major parties.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said McCain could still improve his standing in Iowa.
"They still have the time, they still have the money. It's too early for them to bail out of Iowa," he said, noting the fairly cheap cost of advertising here.
Veteran Republican strategist Bob Haus said all candidates should be nervous about the Nov. 4 election.
"I have never seen an election that has had this many violent mood swings," he said. "Six months ago we were talking about Iraq, two months ago we were talking about flooding and now we're talking about federalizing the financial system."
McCain aides say Iowa has made the list of competitive states he is focusing on. Iowa has seven electoral votes; it takes 270 to win the presidency.
"John McCain views Iowa as a key battleground," said spokeswoman Wendy Riemann. "He intends to fight here until Nov. 4."
Obama aides read something else into McCain's focus and argued it was simply electoral math.
"It's pretty clear John McCain believes he needs Iowa to win," said spokesman Brad Anderson.
Jerry Crawford, a veteran Democratic activist who has advised presidential candidates for more than 20 years, said the ground organization Obama built to help him to a surprise win in January's caucuses has been fine-tuned since. He said Obama's operation was "the best presidential organization in the history of Iowa" and noted that McCain is only now creating one.
"You can't catch up," Crawford said.
But Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, said McCain's problem in Iowa has less to do with organization than where he is on the issues, such as a new farm bill and incentives for alternative fuels. Both are popular throughout the Midwest, and McCain opposed both.
"I think he has a lot of explaining to do," Culver said. "I don't think the farmers and rural Iowa in particular are going to forgive him."