McCain can still win (And maybe pigs will fly)
The place alone said it all. Just 12 days before the US was to vote in an election that not long ago promised to be a squeaker, Barack Obama was addressing 35,000 people in Indianapolis, capital of a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat since 1964.
Indiana was the last stop before he broke off campaigning to travel to Hawaii to say a final goodbye to his beloved grandmother, so ill she might not survive to witness the incredible moment when, if polls are correct, an African-American wins the presidency. Some inevitably saw the gesture as a political ploy, to underline the importance he attaches to family, and to remind wavering voters of the white side of his ancestry. One thing, however, is certain. Had this election had been on a knife edge, he would never have made the trip.
Don't get over-confident, Obama urged the huge crowd. "We cannot let up, and we won't." As if Democrats needed reminding – they who have lost seven of the last 10 elections, and even now are gnawed by the fear that Republicans yet again have some dastardly trick up their sleeve to deny them the prize. But, barring an upset for the ages, a 47-year-old Senator from Illinois, with less than four years' experience in Washington and the thinnest of résumés, will wake up in 10 days' time as President-elect with the biggest mandate of modern times, facing his country's biggest crisis of modern times – and America is already looking beyond.
National unity was the theme of Obama's inspirational early campaigning, and it will be the leitmotif of the first months of his presidency. On 4 November, Democrats may be dealt the strongest governing hand any party has received in a generation, with not just one of their own in the White House, but with enlarged majorities in Congress – perhaps even with a filibuster-proof majority of 60 to 40 in the Senate.
But despite this potential legislative juggernaut, Obama is set to reach out across party lines. He will almost certainly appoint a Republican to a top cabinet job. Aides publicly speculate that Robert Gates could be kept on as Secretary of Defence. Another possibility is Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, either at the Pentagon or as secretary of state.
Such speculation may be tempting fate. The baseball legend Yogi Berra famously declared, after all, "It ain't over till it's over", and the rule applies to politics as well as sport. On paper, it is not yet too late for John McCain: strange things have happened in the final stages of a campaign. In public, at least, senior aides argue that their man is in the same position as Al Gore in 2000, six or seven points behind late in the campaign, but who overtook George W Bush in the closing straight – in the popular vote, though not in the all-important electoral college.
In these last days, McCain will hammer home his message that Obama is a crypto-socialist intent on "spreading the wealth around". He is also pointing to the injudicious remark last week of Obama's vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden, that a crisis would erupt to "test" a President Obama within a few months of taking office. Wouldn't the vastly more tested McCain be far better equipped to cope?
Alas, Americans apparently now believe that Obama would handle a crisis as effectively as his opponent. That was the Democrat's true achievement in the three TV debates: no flashy comebacks, no soaring oratory – just sober thoughtfulness, measured calm and a command of the issues that seems to have convinced undecided voters he could be trusted with the job.
Obama's lead in most national polls is now in double digits. Even more importantly, he is pulling away in the dozen or so swing states that will decide the election. It would be a major surprise if he did not win every state carried by John Kerry in 2004, plus Iowa and New Mexico, captured by Al Gore four years earlier. If so, Obama would have 264 electoral college votes, six short of the 270 needed for victory. If he wins any single one of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Missouri, Colorado or North Carolina, he becomes president. Right now he's ahead in all of them – in Virginia and Ohio by double digits.
And each time McCain plots a comeback, a new blow intervenes. Colin Powell's backing for Obama was largely expected – but that did not make it less painful. If anything, indeed, the former secretary of state's withering criticism of the contemporary Republican Party was even more damaging than the endorsement itself. Hardly less shocking was the announcement by Scott McClellan – Bush's White House spokesman from 2003-06 – that he too will be voting for the Democrat in nine days' time. When Texas Republican blue-bloods jump ship, the chaos in the party can be hidden no longer.
This year traditional roles are reversed. Normally fractious Democrats are united, but Republicans resemble a circular firing squad. Realists take aim at neocons, fiscal conservatives at free-market purists, libertarians at social conservatives – and everyone, almost, at Bush, as unpopular as Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate. In an interview in the conservative Washington Times newspaper, McCain lashed out, not at the Democrats, but at his fellow Republican in the White House for "letting everything get completely out of hand".
Sarah Palin, whose selection appalls many old-school conservative commentators, is another ingredient in this noxious brew. The scorn heaped upon her when it emerged that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 to buy designer clothes for the campaign may have been unfair. But it was proof anew that while McCain's vice-presidential pick remains a darling of the God-and-guns brigade, she has turned from asset to liability among the broader electorate.
A New York Times poll on Friday showed Obama pulling ahead in traditionally Republican groups: among the better off, suburbanites and married women. Another poll put him tied, yes, tied, with McCain among Nascar fans – white "Joe Six Packs" who follow saloon-car racing, and are normally bedrock Republicans. If these trends hold up, Obama could amass 350 electoral college votes or more, a victory similar to those of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. He would also become the first Democrat to win 50 per cent of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter.
Equally ominous for McCain is the early voting, now under way in some 30 states. A third of Americans may cast absentee or early ballots this year, and turnout has already been heavy, especially among young people and blacks, two strong Obama constituencies. Overall turnout in 2008 is likely to top the 60 per cent reached in the election four years ago and, says Michael McDonald, professor of politics at George Mason University, there's "a very good chance we'll beat the 64 per cent turnout in 1960" – the highest in recent US history and well above Britain's last two general elections. Either way, it's good news for Obama, whose campaign has mounted a huge voter registration drive.
Yet Democrats are biting their nails over an "October surprise" – a terrorist attack, an 11th-hour intervention by Osama bin Laden or a Republican resurrection of the race issue are three feared scenarios. Indeed, if Obama does manage to lose, it will probably be thanks to the colour of his skin. A third of voters claim to know someone who will not vote for the Democrat because he is black, according to The New York Times survey.
In truth, however, the "October surprise" has probably already happened, courtesy of Wall Street. The financial and economic crisis is proving fatal to McCain. Each time he tries to regroup, the market plunges again, turning voters against the incumbent party held responsible for the mess.
Last last week, McCain seemed to acknowledge he might lose. In New Hampshire, scene of his most remarkable comebacks, he seemed to strike the wistful note of a politician in the autumn of his career. "I can't think of any place I'd rather be as the election draws close, an underdog in the state of New Hampshire," he told a rally.
Maybe al-Qa'ida, or some sudden, huge foreign crisis will scramble the cards, but there's no guarantee McCain will benefit. Maybe US forces will capture Bin Laden. Maybe the Dow will jump 3,000 points. And maybe pigs will fly.
The campaign week: McCain warns the voters as the tide turns Obama's way
Sunday Obama raises a record $150m (£94m) in September alone. The former Republican secretary of state Colin Powell endorses Obama, criticising his old party as "narrow" and Sarah Palin as unqualified. He says the US needs a "generational change".
Monday Obama in Florida as early voting begins. McCain tells voters in swing state Missouri that nothing is inevitable, though polls show Obama edging ahead there, too.
Tuesday McCain on the stump in Pennsylvania, a blue state he virtually has to carry to win the presidency. Polls suggest he trails there by 10 points or more. Obama holds economic "summit" in Florida.
Wednesday New Palin firestorm, with news that Republican National Committee bought her designer clothes costing $150,000 (£94,000). An Iranian official says Obama seems "more rational" than McCain.
Thursday Obama heads to Hawaii to visit his ailing grandmother. McCain again attacks the Democrat as a European-style socialist, and wades into President Bush, too, for "losing control of everything".
Friday 'New York Times' poll puts Obama ahead, 52 per cent to McCain's 39 per cent. Palin breaks off her campaign to testify in St Louis to investigators about her "Troopergate" dismissal of former Alaska police chief.
Yesterday Obama is back on the campaign trail in Nevada and New Mexico, with McCain seeking to warn voters against giving Democrats "unchecked authority" over the nation's economy.