WASHINGTON (AP) -- Democrat Barack Obama extended his front-running campaign into West Virginia, a bastion of white, middle-class voters who rejected his primary season appeals, and confidently broached the subject of victory in a presidential contest playing out on Republican turf.
GOP rival John McCain found himself looking for a break as he was largely forced to defend his standing in states President Bush won four years ago.
"We are now 19 days not from the end but from the beginning," Obama told the crowd at a New York fundraiser a day after the final presidential debate. He noted the "extraordinary" work ahead for the next president.
Still, he warned against getting "giddy or cocky," reminding supporters with two words: "New Hampshire."
"You know, I've been in these positions before where we were favored and the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked," he said. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, only to lose the New Hampshire primary to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "We want to make sure that we are closing strong, running through the tape."
An energized McCain told voters, "Choose well. There's much at stake," as he campaigned in Pennsylvania, one of a dwindling number of Democratic-leaning states the Arizona senator still hopes to put in the GOP column.
Hitting his likely theme for the final weeks, McCain said the Democrat wants to "spread the wealth around" but that "people are not going to let Sen. Obama raise their taxes in a tough economy." And, he tried anew to make the first-term Illinois senator's resume a liability: "The next president won't have time to get used to the office. He won't have the luxury of studying up on the issues before he acts."
With their face-to-face debates over, both candidates are courting an estimated third of voters who are undecided or could still change their minds. Obama is looking to solidify his advantage in polling in key battlegrounds as the political environment and economic crisis favors Democrats.
McCain is trying to change the dynamics, but even Republicans acknowledge it's largely out of McCain's hands.
"It appears Obama is trying to build a mandate," said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster in Washington. "Can McCain do anything to turn it around? Doubtful."
"We're going to need some kind of outside game-changing event to really make a difference," said Saul Anuzis, the GOP chairman in Michigan.
Nevertheless, McCain is trying to gain ground with automated phone calls in at least two states, Nevada and Wisconsin. The message: "Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans."
In 1969, Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam war group that claimed responsibility for bombing government buildings, though not a judge's home. More than 25 years later, Ayers, by then a college professor living in Obama's Chicago neighborhood, hosted a meet-the-candidate session at his home for Obama. From the mid-1990s to 2002, the two served on the boards of two nonprofit charitable organizations in Chicago. Chicago named Ayers its "Citizen of the Year" in 1997 for work on one of them. Obama has condemned Ayers radical activities.
Obama's wife, Michelle, urged caution for Democrats - but even she sounded confident.
"Barack has been and will continue to be the underdog until he's sitting in the White House," she told CBS' "Early Show." "A guy named Barack Obama, who is a young, beginning-to-be-known candidate is always an underdog."
Obama, who has raised prodigious donations after rejecting public financing, is pounding McCain with broadcast ads in key states and personally carrying his campaign into states once thought safe for Republican presidential candidates.
He was spending the next few days in Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia and, on Thursday, he bought airtime to run ads all across West Virginia, which Bush won twice.
Obama lost West Virginia's primary to Clinton by 41 percentage points last May as he struggled to win over working-class whites. But Democrats familiar with the strategy say the economic turmoil in the hard-hit state and TV ads meant for neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia that spilled over onto West Virginia televisions have made the state competitive. The last Democrat to win there was Bill Clinton in 1996.
These Democrats say Obama's campaign also is considering pouring money into reliably Republican Kentucky and may yet return to the airwaves in North Dakota and Georgia, two states Obama tried but failed to put in play over the summer.
Democrats say internal polling shows races growing tighter in those states. It's also possible Obama may be trying to create an aura of invincibility for the final weeks or trying to force McCain to spend time and money defending traditional GOP turf. McCain's direct spending is limited to $84 million in taxpayer money, but since the fall campaign began the Republican National Committee has had $160 million available, nearly all of which can be spent to aid McCain.
Obama's West Virginia foray also may signal that pocketbook concerns are trumping any prejudices among white, working-class voters. A recent AP-GfK poll showed that Obama, who would be first black president, has inched up among whites with no college education while McCain has lost significant ground.
McCain and the RNC are mostly focused on protecting states Bush won in 2004, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Private GOP polling shows McCain down in most of those but still within or close to the margin of error.
Obama has a comfortable lead in Iowa and New Mexico, which Bush took last time. The only state Bush lost in 2004 that both McCain and the RNC are contesting is Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes. The RNC just pulled out of Wisconsin and Maine, but McCain remains on the air there and in New Hampshire and Minnesota.
McCain is to campaign in Virginia this weekend, while running mate Sarah Palin heads to Colorado on Monday.
New ads Thursday from both sides returned to core arguments.
Obama rolled one out that shows McCain saying "I am not President Bush" during the debate. "True," the ad said, "but you did vote with Bush 90 percent of the time." It also shows pictures of the two Republicans together and argued McCain would continue the unpopular president's policies.
McCain departed from his recent character-attack ads with a spot that poked at the Democratic ticket over experience but largely sought to break from Bush. A new RNC ad that references the economic crisis shows an Oval Office view and says: "He hasn't had executive experience. This crisis would be Obama's first crisis - in this chair."
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