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 that 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, the Democrat 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 that the Arizona senator still hopes to put in the GOP column.
McCain pushed his likely theme for the final weeks. 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," McCain said. 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."
Their face-to-face debates are over and 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 and beat the odds, 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.
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 and hadn't been targeted this year by Obama until now.
Obama lost West Virginia's Democratic primary to Clinton by 41 percent 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 have 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. Those are two states Obama had tried but failed to put in play over the summer.
Democrats say Obama's internal polling shows the races growing tighter in those states. But it's also possible Obama may be trying to create an aura of invincibility for the final weeks, particularly in states with early voting, 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 that Bush won in 2004, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Private GOP polling shows McCain down in most of those states but still within or close to the margin of error.
Obama has a comfortable lead in Iowa and New Mexico, which Bush won last time. The only state won by Democrat John Kerry in 2004 that both McCain and the RNC are contesting fully is Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes. The RNC just pulled out of Wisconsin and Maine, but McCain remains on the air in those states as well as in New Hampshire and Minnesota.
McCain is to campaign in Virginia this weekend, while running mate Sarah Palin heads to Colorado on Monday.
Both Obama and McCain are returned to old argument in their latest TV ads.
After the final debate, Obama rolled out one that showed McCain saying "I am not President Bush" during the face off. "True," the ad said, "but you did vote with Bush 90 percent of the time." It also showed pictures of the two Republicans together to argue 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. The new RNC ad showed an Oval Office view and said, "He hasn't had executive experience. This crisis would be Obama's first crisis — in this chair."