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John McCain's Iowa stop: Smart move or odd detour?

September 30, 2008 |  7:28 pm

A mere five weeks from now, as night sweeps across the continent on Nov. 4, the 2008 presidential campaign presumably will be decided by the results in a handful of key states.John McCain campaigning in Iowa

Iowa doesn't seem likely to be one of those. So we were left puzzled by a John McCain itinerary that found him spending a good part of Monday and much of Tuesday in that locale.

We can only assume that he and his political advisers know something that the polls of that state's voters aren't detecting. They better, because with one exception, several surveys in Iowa over the last month have shown Barack Obama solidly ahead in the fight for its 7 electoral votes.

If McCain and his camp don't have good reason to dispute these findings, it's hard not to view the roughly 24 hours he just spent in Des Moines and vicinity as a waste of time at this point in the White House race.

No doubt McCain would love to keep Iowa -- which President Bush narrowly carried four years ago -- in the Republican column. He, along with running mate Sarah Palin, held a rally in the state two weeks ago. But not only does winning it loom as a difficult challenge for the Republican ticket, it's hardly key to its path to victory.

Obama began with a big advantage in the state over McCain. The 2006 midterm elections showed a drift toward Democrats there. And in early 2007, with an eye on a strong showing in Iowa's Democratic caucuses, Obama began organizing his support among Iowans.

His victory in the caucuses early this year showed how successful his efforts were -- and ensured that a ground-level operation was in place that could then focus on the general election.

McCain, by contrast, did not invest much time or energy in the state's GOP caucuses -- and was rewarded with a fourth-place finish. Competing hard in Iowa made little sense for him; his path to the Republican nomination lay elsewhere. But it meant that once he locked up the nod, he lacked ...

... the type of organization in the state Obama already had established.

McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate helped excite Iowa Republicans about his candidacy; social conservatives exert significant influence within the state party. But most of those pesky polls -- taken post-Palin -- simply haven't shown a major shift toward McCain among other Iowa voters.

Here's the bottom line: McCain can afford to have the state's electoral votes subtracted from the base of 286 that Bush won in 2004 and still win the presidency -- as long as he rebuffs Obama's aggressive efforts to win Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada.

And McCain can deal Obama's White House hopes a virtual death blow by winning Pennsylvania, a Democratic state in 2004 where polls show this year's race a squeaker.

So again, we wonder ... what attracted McCain to Des Moines this week, rather than Wilkes-Barre, Pa.?

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: Getty Images

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