Republican leaders said Saturday they were worried Sen. John McCain was heading for defeat unless he brought stability to his presidential...

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Republican leaders said Saturday they were worried Sen. John McCain was heading for defeat unless he brought stability to his presidential candidacy and settled on a clear message to counter Sen. Barack Obama.

In interviews, Republican leaders said McCain appeared to be flailing in trying to campaign against the backdrop of an economic crisis and seemed uncertain about how tough to be in taking on Obama.

Again and again, party leaders said they were concerned the race was slipping away and that McCain and his advisers seemed to be adrift.

The expressions of concern came after a particularly difficult week for McCain. New questions were raised Friday night about his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate, after an investigation by the Alaska Legislature concluded she had abused her power in trying to orchestrate the firing of her former brother-in-law, a state trooper.

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“I think you’re seeing a turning point,” said Saul Anuzis, the Republican chairman in Michigan, a state McCain pulled out of more than a week ago. “You’re starting to feel real frustration because we are running out of time. Our message, the campaign’s message, isn’t connecting.”

In Pennsylvania, Robert Gleason, the state Republican chairman, said he was concerned McCain’s increasingly aggressive tone was ineffective with moderate voters and women in the critical southeast part of a state that is at the top of McCain’s must-win list.

“I just think the voters are a bit more sophisticated maybe in the southeast, they’re not as susceptible to attack ads,” Gleason said. “I worry about the southeast. Obama is making inroads.”

Gleason, who generally has been optimistic about McCain’s chances in Pennsylvania, said Saturday that McCain’s choice of Palin did not appear to be helping him with independent women in the vital Philadelphia suburbs. “It’s a concern,” he said.

Several party leaders said McCain needed to settle on a single message, warning that his changing day-to-day dialogue — a welter of evolving economic proposals, mixed with on-again, off-again attacks on Obama’s character — was not breaking through and was helping Obama portray McCain as erratic.

“The main thing he needs to do is focus on a single message, a single concise or clear-cut message, and stick with that over the next 30 days, regardless of what happens,” said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman from Minnesota. “He’s had a lot of attack lines. But it’s time to choose.”

John Danforth, a retired Republican senator from Missouri, said McCain should focus on drawing contrasts with Obama on economic programs.

“I don’t think it’s enough to talk about earmarks incessantly,” Danforth said. “He’s made that point. It’s a good point to make. He’s made it. You’ve got to get beyond that and talk about the very dramatic taxes and spending in the Obama program.”

McCain’s advisers said they remained confident of victory, even as they acknowledged the steep road ahead.

“My sense of where things are: John McCain beat back what was a political climate that would have snuffed out any other candidate in the Republican Party,” said Nicolle Wallace, a senior adviser. “He’s beat back every hurdle that was ever placed in front of him. Right now, we’re facing a giant economic meltdown and we’re holding our own.”

Yet there were still signs of confusion and turmoil, as McCain’s aides tried to wrestle with conflicting advice, daunting poll numbers and criticism from state party leaders.

One senior adviser, asked whether McCain would give a major speech Monday night, laughed and said he did not even know what McCain was doing Saturday night.

McCain’s aides said he had been hurt by high-profile rallies with Palin in which supporters shouted insults and threats at Obama, prompting McCain on Friday night to chide those who did that.

The aides suggested they were trying to find a balance between attacking Obama and presenting him as untested and risky — a line frequently used by McCain and Palin — without stirring unruly crowd reactions.

Emotions are raw within the campaign, where top advisers have lashed out at what they said was the media’s unfair focus on those crowds.

“I think there have been quite a few reporters recently who have sort of implied, or made more than implications, that somehow we’re responsible for the occasional nut who shows up and yells something about Barack Obama,” said Mark Salter, McCain’s closest adviser. “We’re not.”

The difficulties of the campaign have led some GOP leaders to express concern McCain could drag other Republicans down to defeat, if he ends up losing by a significant margin.

“If Obama is able to run up big numbers around the country, the potential for hurting down-ballot Republicans is very big,” Anuzis said.

In this environment, McCain was receiving conflicting advice from state leaders.

In Colorado — a Republican state McCain is struggling to keep in his column — party Chairman Dick Wadhams urged McCain to directly invoke Obama’s connection to his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Bill Ayers, the 1960s radical who has had a passing association with Obama over the years.

Wadhams said he was surprised McCain had not raised either name in the debate last week.

“I actually do think he should raise as an issue Sen. Obama’s association with Ayers and Rev. Wright,” he said. “I think those are legitimate insights into who Sen. Obama is. I do not think it is irrelevant to this election.”

But Fergus Cullen, the GOP chairman in New Hampshire, said Saturday he thought it would be a mistake for McCain to go down that road.

“I don’t think he should be giving into elements of the base who have been asking him to be going after, using Wright, using Ayers,” Cullen said. “Think about it as an undecided persuadable voter.”

Early in the campaign McCain said he thought raising Wright was off-limits.

McCain acknowledged the difficult fight he faced as he campaigned Saturday in Iowa, where polls show Obama with a healthy lead.

“I’d like to remind you that the political pundits have been wrong several times, and they’re wrong because we will win the state of Iowa in November,” McCain shouted.

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