Winds favor Obama as candidates begin race down the homestretch

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUK judge denies Assange bid to delay extradition hearing Trump's eye-opening scorecard on border security Why Americans should look at the Middle East through the eyes of its youth MORE is in the driver’s seat as the presidential campaign enters its final days and the economic crisis continues to dominate the news.

Democrats are cautiously optimistic about their candidate as Republicans note the race has been marked by dramatic lead changes and polling swings. But they also acknowledge that GOP nominee John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPublisher announces McSally book planned for May release Democrats lead Trump by wide margins in Minnesota Here's what to watch this week on impeachment MORE is facing an uphill battle with less than three weeks to go until Election Day and early voting under way in many states.

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The last debate between the two candidates will take place Wednesday night in Hempstead, N.Y. Democrats say the die appears to be cast while Republicans insist that 20 days is a lifetime in presidential politics.

Democratic strategists, clearly more confident now than they were at this stage of the game in 2004, readily admit that the struggling economy has contributed heavily to Obama’s significant polling leads, but they insist the Illinois senator needs to stay on offense throughout the race and not take anything for granted.

“Obama needs to stay aggressive, as he seems inclined to do,” said Democratic strategist Mark Kornblau. “This is no time for the prevent defense.”

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday that the campaign has been and continues to focus on voter registration and early-voting efforts, calling both initiatives “unprecedented.” Plouffe said voter registration numbers this year appear to favor Democrats by a margin of 4-to-1, and Democrats have gained a great deal of confidence from the numbers they’ve added to registration lists in swing states.

“Obviously, we think that’s going to have an enormous impact on this election,” Plouffe said.

Plouffe said the campaign has also been encouraged by the number of Democratic absentee ballot requests it has seen in states like Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico.

The race clearly favors Obama at this point, according to recent polls, and many analysts wonder if an electoral landslide is in the offing.

Democratic strategists said all they see is good news, and they view the McCain campaign as “strategically dysfunctional” at this point. The Obama campaign and several strategists contacted for this story used the word “erratic” to described McCain’s response to the economic crisis. Strategist Chris Kofinis said it only made a bad situation worse for the Arizona senator’s campaign.

Kofinis, a former adviser to ex-presidential candidate John Edwards, said McCain’s response to the Wall Street meltdown, his “disaster” pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate and the lack of a coherent, consistent message from the campaign has “created a perfect storm blowing in Barack Obama’s direction.”

Kofinis said McCain’s campaign is now “driven by tactics, not strategy” as it hammers away at Obama for his connections to 1960s domestic terrorist William Ayers.

“They are not understanding this election at all,” Kofinis said. “This is a drowning campaign reaching for anything. The thing they don’t understand is they keep pouring water on themselves.”

And even as several Washington Republicans express frustration with a lack of focused aggression coming from the McCain camp, several strategists said there is still time for the Arizona senator to make a winning argument.

“First and foremost is the debate,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, who also contributes to The Hill’s Pundits Blog . “It’s the last opportunity for voters to see both candidates together. It’s important for McCain to spell out the specific policy differences he has with Obama — such as Obama’s fine on those without health insurance and how Obama’s tax plan will hurt middle-class families. Doing so can jump-start momentum and give undecided voters specific reasons to support McCain over the vague reasons so many Obama voters have.”

Heye warned, “It is foolish for anyone to suggest this race is over.

“We’ve seen comebacks before and certainly this campaign has been so unpredictable thus far that anything can happen,” he said.

Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a former official with ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign, acknowledged in an e-mail that “the trendlines with these national polls and battleground state polls have not been encouraging.”

Most national and battleground polls show Obama opening up wide leads over McCain in battleground states and remaining competitive in traditional GOP strongholds like Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana.

“But this race has been susceptible to big swings back and forth,” Madden said. “The campaign still has one last chance over the next three weeks to deliver a compelling argument to that small remaining percentage of persuadable voters. The biggest frustration among Republicans is that Barack Obama has, up until this point, gotten away with faking it as a centrist when in fact he’s anything but a centrist. Obama’s record proves that he is very far outside the mainstream on economic issues, social issues and national security issues.”

 Despite the odds, McCain said Monday he is optimistic about what the next 20 days will bring, with a senior strategist saying earlier this week that the Arizona senator is “within striking distance.”

Political analysts and strategists are all aware that McCain was left for dead last summer after a spectacular campaign implosion that seemed to doom his chances before a phoenix-like comeback propelled him to the nomination.

McCain acknowledged that he is “six points down” — the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Obama leading nationally by more than seven points and leading in enough states to win 313 electoral votes — but he warns that he has been counted out before.

“My friends, we’ve got them just where we want them,” McCain said.