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By NBC Reporter
updated 7/9/2008 3:47:25 PM ET 2008-07-09T19:47:25

In May, more than 10 weeks after he sewed up the nomination of the Republican Party, John McCain cheerfully offered Democrats some tongue-in-cheek advice during an appearance on "Saturday Night Live."

"Do not, under any circumstances, pick a candidate too soon," he said with mock solemnity. "That's right," he added sotto voce, as the show's anchors quibbled and the audience guffawed. "Fight amongst yourselves."

But after a flurry of criticism about McCain's sluggish organization in battleground states, and a subsequent realignment in the campaign's power structure, the presumptive GOP nominee may be regretting that Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton took his advice.

A glance at the primary calendar offers a list of red to purple states where Obama and Clinton stumped feverishly after McCain accepted the party mantle against the backdrop of the White House lawn on March 5. Democrats battled in Indiana, North Carolina and Montana -- all states touted by the Obama campaign as potential electoral pickups -- as well as in Oregon and Pennsylvania, Democratic-leaning states where McCain hopes to gain ground.

"The protracted primary turned out to be an asset to us in the general election," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) of North Carolina, one of the traditionally red states that Obama's campaign says it could put into play. "They spent an enormous amount of time in my state, and because of that we were able to create a grassroots organization that continues to function."

The time Obama and McCain have spent in more traditional battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Missouri has, on the whole, been much closer to even. And McCain used the springtime gap to hold events in true blue locales like Seattle, San Jose, Calif., and the Jersey Shore. "This is an open dialogue with all American people, irrespective of their politics, wherever they are, whether there’s a good chance he'd win the majority of the vote in a given locale or not,” senior McCain adviser Mark Salter told NBC/National Journal in April.

But the difference in simple ground covered in the five contested states that held post-March 4th primaries is striking. In the Tar Heel State, for example, Obama held a total of 14 events over nine campaign days. McCain has spent only three days there, one in a private meeting with evangelical icon Billy Graham and his son. In Indiana, Obama made 26 appearances over 20 days, to McCain's two. McCain trails Obama by more than five campaign stops in Montana, 10 in Oregon and 25 in Pennsylvania.

All told, in those five states, Obama has campaigned for a total of 54 days to McCain's 13, giving Obama a net lead of 41 campaign days. That lead has grown, not shrunk, since Obama clinched the nomination and began campaigning in nontraditional regions as part of his campaign's avowed 50-state strategy.

Republicans in swing states note that time spent in front of Democratic audiences, especially during a contentious primary, does not automatically translate into a dramatic general election advantage.

"To win a Democratic primary, you have to portray yourself as someone who's relatively liberal," said Luke Messer, co-chair of McCain’s Indiana campaign and the former executive director of the state Republican Party. Messer said that Obama’s efforts to shore up support from the left during the primary was unlikely to play well in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.

Video: That’s comedy? McCain's playful "SNL" sentiment hinged on the idea that the Democrats' constant barrage of attacks and counterattacks during the primary season might wear down the eventual winner and disillusion supporters of both. The contests in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana -- during which Clinton still had a chance to overtake Obama's lead in pledged delegates -- were also marked by some of the primary’s most intense negative publicity for the eventual nominee. The controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright reached fever pitch before the May 6 Indiana and North Carolina primaries, which led to particularly intense coverage of the Wright debate in those states.

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Butch Morgan, a former Clinton supporter and Democratic county chair in South Bend, Ind., said that the rivalry between the two Democratic candidates proved to be a trial by fire for new supporters, who are now uniting behind Obama. "We've got seasoned veterans, experienced volunteers, and then we've got a lot whose first endeavor was this primary," he said. "It was intense and passionate, and they learned a lot."

And Democrats argue that the vetting that took place on the airwaves and soil of battleground states may have helped to put contentious issues to rest before reaching the harsher spotlight of the general election. Butterfield said that attempts to bring up Wright as a general election issue would backfire politically.

“That issue was clearly addressed,” said Butterfield. “It would be a mistake for anybody to try to resurrect it.”

Regardless of message, Democrats and Republicans agree that the manpower mobilized by Obama's campaign in red-leaning battleground states allows the Democratic nominee to hit the ground running. "From a resource perspective, if you spent millions of dollars and multiple days and worked to build a campaign, when you get into the fall election, you’re able to build on that," said Messer. "It would be hard to deny those issues."

But Messer remains skeptical about Democrats’ campaign presence in the traditionally red state. "They’re here now," he said of Obama’s organization in Indiana. "But I wouldn't be surprised if their ground troops ended up leaving before we get very far into the fall."

NBC/NJ’s Adam Aigner-Treworgy contributed reporting for this story.

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