With 31 days remaining until Election Day, Democrat Barack Obama's road to the White House is widening, and Republican John McCain's path is narrowing.

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With 31 days remaining until Election Day, Democrat Barack Obama’s road to the White House is widening, and Republican John McCain’s path is narrowing.

The McCain campaign’s decision this week to abandon Democratic-leaning Michigan is the most obvious and dramatic sign, a major tactical retreat that limits ways McCain can reach the magic number of 270 electoral votes on Nov. 4.

But McCain is in as bad or worse shape in other crucial states. He is on course to lose Iowa and New Mexico, both barely won by President Bush four years ago. And McCain and the Republican National Committee this week began pouring money into Indiana and North Carolina, reliably Republican states where Obama has made strong advances and polls indicate the candidates are roughly tied.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, responded this week by significantly increasing television advertising in Indiana and five other states. The campaign even spent $350,000 to air spots continuously on a satellite TV channel, a first for a presidential hopeful.

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The pendulum of the race has swung each way more than once. With a month and two debates remaining, McCain has opportunities to recover.

But the Obama surge, coinciding over the past 10 days with the Wall Street crisis and the debate over a federal bailout, has left McCain on the ropes in eight states — with a combined 101 electoral votes — that Bush carried four years ago.

McCain is slipping further behind not only in Michigan but also in four other states that went Democratic four years ago, but which he hoped to pull into the GOP column this year.

By contrast, McCain does not lead in any state that Sen. John Kerry captured in 2004. Bush beat Kerry by 35 electoral votes, 286 to 251 (one Minnesota elector voted for Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards).

“McCain can now win by holding the states George Bush won in 2004, but playing defense won’t be that easy because Obama is doing well in a number of those states,” said Dante Scala, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “The fact that states like Indiana and Missouri are still on the table spells trouble for McCain.”

McCain also has less room to maneuver because of finances. He cannot spend more than the $84.1 million in public funds he accepted after being nominated a month ago, although the national GOP is augmenting his spending with so-called independent expenditures on ads in key states.

Obama, who has broken fundraising records, is the first candidate to reject the public grant, and he can spend as much as he can raise privately. McCain campaign officials acknowledged that has given Obama an advantage.

McCain’s departure from Michigan, which Kerry carried by 3 percentage points in 2004, was abrupt, less than 24 hours after the Republican National Committee bought $5 million in TV airtime in Michigan and five other key states.

McCain campaign officials put the best face on the decision and signaled that they will become more aggressive in attacking Obama.

Political director Mike DuHaime said the campaign would shift resources to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, won by Democrats in the past two elections, but “two states we feel very strongly about.”

McCain, however, has trailed for five months in every public poll in both states. The RealClearPolitics Web site’s average of public polls now shows McCain behind by almost 8 percentage points in Pennsylvania and 5 in Wisconsin.

McCain also is opening a new front in Maine, where Bush failed in each of the past two elections to pick off an electoral vote in the state’s vast, relatively conservative 2nd Congressional District.

Maine and Nebraska are the only states that apportion electoral votes by congressional district, and the Obama campaign is reciprocating by maintaining a 15-person staff and a steady, if light, television-advertising presence in Omaha, hoping to squeeze out a win in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.

McCain and his Republican allies also are readying a newly aggressive assault on Obama’s character, believing they must shift the conversation back to questions about his judgment, honesty and personal associations, several top Republicans said.

“We’re going to get a little tougher,” a senior Republican operative told The Washington Post, indicating that a fresh batch of television ads are coming. “We’ve got to question this guy’s associations. Very soon. There’s no question that we have to change the subject here.”

However, such aggressiveness carries risks for McCain if it angers swing voters, who often say they are looking for candidates who offer a positive message. That could be especially true this year, when frustration with Washington politics is acute and a desire for specifics on how to fix the economy and fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is strong.

The flip side of the decision to concede Michigan is that it frees Obama to re-allocate resources, including his time.

Obama has made the most visits to Michigan and Florida, states where Democrats did not campaign during the primary season because state officials violated national party rules by scheduling early contests. Since wrapping up the nomination in June, Obama has held 82 events in 16 states, with nearly one-quarter of those — 10 each — in Michigan and Florida, a review of daily schedules shows. He has visited Michigan and Florida seven times each since Sept. 1.

Of Obama’s 82 events, 62 have been in states that Bush won in 2004 and 20 have been in states won by Kerry.

Conversely, of 97 McCain events since June, 59 have been defending states Bush won and 38 were on offense, in states taken by Kerry.

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