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McCain campaign writes off Michigan

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is giving up on winning Michigan.
Obama 2008
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a rally at Calder Plaza with a crowd estimated at nearly 16,000 people in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Thursday.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate John McCain conceded battleground Michigan to the Democrats on Thursday, GOP officials said, a major retreat as he struggles to regain his footing in a campaign increasingly dominated by economic issues.

These officials said McCain was pulling staff and advertising out of the economically distressed Midwestern state. He also canceled a visit slated for next week. Michigan, with 17 electoral votes, voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, but Republicans had poured money into an effort to try to place it in their column this year.

The decision marked the first time either McCain or his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, has tacitly conceded a traditional battleground state in a race for the White House with little more than a month remaining.

In a campaign now unfolding across more than a dozen states, the decision allows McCain's resources to be sent to Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida and other more competitive states. But it also means Obama can shift money to other states like Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina where he is trying to eat into traditional Republican territory.

By pulling out of vote-rich Michigan, McCain conceded a large part of the electoral map in the heart of the industrial Midwest.

The move underscored McCain's troubles on the economy, which he has acknowledged is not his strongest subject. It also underscored his struggle to beat an opponent who has the money to compete in many states President Bush won four years ago. Polls show Obama has pulled ahead or tied McCain in many of those states.

Obama rejected public financing so he can spend as much as he can raise; McCain's direct spending is limited to $84 million in taxpayer money. But McCain is getting help from the Republican National Committee, which has plenty to spend to supplement McCain's campaign. The Democratic National Committee has not been as big a help for Obama, but his massive fundraising makes him rely less on the party.

As Nov. 4 approaches, both sides are adjusting their strategies daily to find the best state-by-state path to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Along with giving up Michigan, a McCain aide said the campaign is opening a front in Maine, which Kerry won four years ago and which offers four electoral votes allocated in proportion to the vote. The Arizona senator's campaign checked advertising rates in media markets there this week.

Obama already has abandoned efforts in Alaska, Georgia and North Dakota, but the Democrat has succeeded in making traditional Republican strongholds Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia competitive. Both sides are battling it out in those states, where public polls show Obama ahead or tied.

The two campaigns are squaring off with increasing intensity in Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, which Bush won in 2004, and Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, which went to Kerry.

Obama also is making a limited effort in the traditional GOP bastion of Montana and McCain is going after Democratic-tilting Minnesota.

McCain had identified Michigan early on as a potential target, particularly in light of Obama's troubles with white working class voters in other Rust Belt primaries although he skipped Michigan because of a Democratic Party fight over its primary date and didn't set up a campaign organization there during the primary.

But Michigan posed other difficulties for McCain. It has a Democratic governor and the nation's highest annual average unemployment rate since 2006. McCain's 90 percent support in the Senate for the unpopular President Bush, a theme hammered by Obama, proved too much for the GOP nominee to overcome.

GOP strategists said those troubles became more acute for McCain in Michigan after the Wall Street collapse, and both public and private polls showed him sliding. On Wednesday night, the campaign decided that the $1 million a week it was spending in Michigan wasn't worth it with polls showing Obama approaching a double-digit lead, according to Republican insiders, who requested anonymity to avoid annoying the McCain campaign.

Word of McCain's pull out came as the vice presidential candidates, Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden, prepared for an evening debate in St. Louis and just before Obama took the stage for a rally at Michigan State University, his third event in the state in five days.

If the Illinois senator knew about McCain's plans, Obama didn't mention it and continued to criticize his rival's economic policies. "My opponents' philosophy isn't just wrongheaded, it reveals out how out of touch he really is," Obama told more than 15,000 gathered on a chilly fall afternoon.

McCain's decision didn't go over well with at least some Michigan Republicans.

"John McCain is our candidate," said Mike Bishop, the top-ranking Republican in the state Legislature. "We want him in Michigan. We want him to hear our issues."