It will be a red-state Fourth of July for Barack Obama, who hopes to find votes as well as fireworks in places that blue-state Democrats often bypass in presidential elections.
During the long holiday weekend, Obama is making an All-American swing from picnics to parades in reliably Republican corners of the country, states such as North Dakota and Montana. Both have voted Republican for the White House by hefty margins for almost four decades. Neither state offers many electoral votes — three apiece — but appearances there give Obama the opportunity to argue that he can appeal to voters of all stripes.
"It may have been Woody Allen who said 90 percent of success is showing up," Obama told a small but enthusiastic crowd of donors at a fundraiser here. "If I didn't show up, I wouldn't get many votes around here. If I did show up, I might get something going."
Colorado, where Obama spent Wednesday, has unexpectedly tipped from a GOP stronghold into the battleground column this year. Ohio and Missouri, which went Republican in 2004, got Obama visits this week. A second trip to Missouri is scheduled for Saturday, another swing state.
Democrats have made gains in recent gubernatorial and congressional races in the states. Montana's governor and two U.S. senators are Democrats. North Dakota's governor is a Republican but the state's two senators are Democrats.
Obama noted this sort of evolution in parts of the West — particularly Colorado — to his supporters Wednesday night, saying that it had been a chief topic of his phone conversation with former President Clinton earlier this week. Clinton told him that he doubted he would have won Colorado in 1992 had independent candidate H. Ross Perot not been in the race and drawn a sizable percentage of voters, mostly away from Republican President George H.W. Bush.
"You've seen a seismic shift in attitudes here," Obama said.
As a result, the campaign is making a serious play for red states like Montana and North Dakota, building up an extensive ground operation, buying television time and sending the candidate in for a visit.
Obama's first two ads of the general election race are running in 18 states — seven of which have gone Republican in the last several elections, including Montana and North Dakota. His visits this week aren't his first to either state, either. Obama has been to North Dakota once and Montana three times, with more expected.
Focus on patriotism
At a Fargo, N.D., children's museum on Thursday, Obama planned to hold a town-hall meeting with veterans to focus on patriotism, service to country and treatment of veterans.
Recalling his grandfather's enlistment after the Pearl Harbor attack, Obama said in prepared remarks, "When our troops go into battle, they serve no faction or party; they represent no race or region. They are simply Americans. They serve and fight and bleed together out of loyalty not just to a place on a map or a certain kind of people, but to a set of ideals that we have been striving for since the first shots rang out at Lexington and Concord."
For Friday's Independence Day holiday, a important symbol for Americans and politicians, the campaign chose Butte, Mont.
Obama is attending a Fourth of July parade and picnic there with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters. Friday is his older daughter Malia's 10th birthday, so a private celebration also is planned in the town.
"The people of North Dakota and Montana are independent-minded voters," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "We think we can not only compete, but we can win."
Taking the fight to McCain
While Obama was tromping around on GOP turf, his Republican rival John McCain was nowhere near his base of support. McCain spent part of the week overseas, in Colombia and Mexico. He had no plans to campaign on the Fourth of July or all weekend, spending time at his home in Arizona instead.
The Obama camp sees Obama's huge-margin primary wins over former Democratic rival Hilllary Rodham Clinton in Montana and North Dakota — he drew more than 100,000 votes in Montana — as a starting advantage.
If nothing else, forcing McCain to compete for those states' electoral votes could be enough to alter the outcome this fall. Obama is able to spend as much as the record-shattering fundraiser can raise, while McCain is limited by public campaign financing to $85 million.
Still, for all the happy talk about turning these and other red states blue, it will be a very difficult battle for Obama.
Montana voted for President Bush over Al Gore by a 25 percentage-point margin in 2000 and 21 percentage points in 2004. North Dakota is even tougher, having gone for Bush by more than 27 points in both 2000 and 2004.
In Montana, the three top Democrats waited until after the state's primary on June 3 to endorse Obama, a sign they didn't want to be his most aggressive and out-front supporters in the conservative state. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has said Obama could be a tough sell for pro-gun Westerners in the state with the highest concentration of gun owners.
He did have one bit of good news for the Obama team: the perception that McCain is soft on the issue.
In North Dakota, the last Democratic candidate to carry the state was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Only two other Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, have won the state since 1900.
"Barack Obama is wrong for North Dakota. His values are wrong," Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a conference call with reporters. "He's turned out to be an old-fashioned politician."
Even Obama alluded to his difficulties at the fundraiser, and pleaded for help.
"I'm going to have to be a better candidate," he said. "You are going to have to make sure that over the next four months that outside of your family and your work, this is your project."