WASHINGTON (AP) -- One month before Election Day, Barack Obama sits atop battleground polls in a shrinking playing field, the economic crisis is breaking his way and the Democrat has made progress toward winning the White House.
The onus is on Republican John McCain to turn the race around under exceptionally challenging circumstances - and his options are limited.
McCain's advisers say the Arizona senator will ramp up his attacks in the coming days with a tougher, more focused message describing "who Obama is," including questioning his character, "liberal" record and "too risky" proposals in advertising and appearances.
Obama's advisers, in turn, say he will argue that McCain is unable to articulate an economic vision that's different from President Bush's. In a new push, the Illinois senator is calling McCain's health care plan "radical."
Now that the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin is over, the contest returns to being entirely about Obama and McCain and likely will stay that way until Nov. 4. The rivals meet Tuesday in their second of three debates as the campaign enters its next unpredictable chapter.
Interviews with party insiders across the country Friday showed this: Democrats are optimistic of victory if nervous over whether Obama can hold his advantage while Republicans are worried that the race may be moving out of reach though hopeful that McCain will beat the odds as he did in the GOP primary.
Both sides note that plenty can change in one month - and they're right.
"Very confident, yet not overly so," said Ohio Democratic Party chief Chris Redfern, who said the financial turmoil is dreadful for the country but "politically it's advantageous" for Obama.
South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said that given McCain's standing, "I'd be concerned at this time, but I would never count this guy out. He's got the political hide of an alligator."
The Electoral College battle playing out over roughly a dozen states puts McCain's challenge to reach the necessary 270 votes in stark terms.
McCain can't prevail without holding onto most of the states that Bush won, and he's now virtually tied or trailing in public polls in at least 10 of them - Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia - as he tries to fend off Obama's well-funded advertising onslaught and grass-roots efforts.
The GOP nominee also is only playing in five states that Democrat John Kerry won in 2004 - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire and, now, Maine - and he's running behind. McCain abandoned efforts Thursday in one other, costly 17-vote Michigan, as Obama approaches a double-digit lead in the high-unemployment state and it became clear McCain couldn't shake Bush's drag.
Some Republicans close to McCain's campaign fret in private that Obama may be pulling away for good; others aren't so pessimistic. But there's unanimity in this; McCain has dwindling chances to regain momentum in the face of stiff headwinds, and the upcoming debates are critical.
"He needs to be able to speak to his strengths and remind people of why they like him," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire delegate to the Republican National Convention. Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer said McCain must clearly "distinguish between the two approaches to governing." And Ted Welch, a veteran Republican fundraiser in Tennessee, said: "He has to give voters enough reasons to vote for him. He hasn't yet."
That doesn't appear to be the campaign's priority in the final weeks. GOP operatives say the goal is to undercut Obama, likely by raising questions about his associations with convict Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a former Obama top fundraiser, and Bill Ayers, a founder of a 1960s radical group.
"We're looking at a very aggressive last 30 days of turning the page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans," senior adviser Greg Strimple told reporters Thursday.
McCain himself suggested a strategy shift during a Colorado event that day when a voter asked, "When are you going to take the gloves off?" He answered, "How about Tuesday night?"
The campaign's latest advertisement asks, "Who is Barack Obama?" and asserts, "He's not truthful on taxes."
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton counters that McCain will try to distract voters from the economic crisis by launching character attacks.
Clearly, McCain's campaign believes that focusing on McCain's biography and record isn't enough and making Obama supremely unacceptable in voters' eyes may be the Republican's best - if not only - shot at winning the presidency.
The risk: Voters could be turned off if McCain goes too far.
From his national headquarters to his campaign plane, McCain's staff has been discouraged by the difficult environment over the past two weeks in which the race dynamics were largely out of their control - discouraged but no less determined to win.
Advisers contend that McCain is rebounding following Palin's strong debate performance Thursday that quieted GOP critics who questioned her qualifications after several TV interview missteps. Independent analysts say she improved her image and staunched the ticket's bleeding.
Congress approved the bailout plan one day later, and advisers hope the issue now will fade; McCain had struggled to strike the right chord amid the crisis. But there was no indication that other campaign topics would overtake the issue and more economic woes are possible; the nation lost 159,000 jobs in September and Americans will soon open their third-quarter 401(k) statements.
One bright spot: the Republican National Committee pulled in a hefty $66 million last month to help supplement McCain's advertising. Unlike Obama, he can spend only $84 million in taxpayer money.
Obama, meanwhile, was lifted in polls by voters who think he's better able to handle the economy and better suited to lead the nation through the financial crisis. Surveys also showed that skeptical voters having trouble envisioning him as president started to come around. He's a 47-year-old freshman senator from Chicago who would be the country's first black president.
The Democrat has been using his financial heft and freedom from fundraising limits to swamp McCain in TV advertising, spending roughly $13 million to $11 million for McCain and the RNC combined last week.
Obama, to be sure, still has work to do to lock down his lead. His advantage easily could disappear if he stumbles - or if an adverse outside event, a so-called "October surprise," occurs.
"He needs to give a little bit more of a window into Barack Obama as a human being ... reveal himself in a way that people who like Barack Obama say, 'I really want to embrace this guy,'" said Steve Grossman, a Massachusetts Democrat and former national party chairman.
Said Joe Erwin, the former Democratic Party chief in South Carolina: "We've just got to swim our own race at this point, and not react to what the Republicans do because we know that we're doing is working."
On the Net:
McCain campaign: http://www.johnmccain.com/
Obama campaign: http://www.barackobama.com/index.php