LANSING, MICH. — With polls showing Barack Obama building a strong lead in Michigan, aides to John McCain's campaign said Thursday that they were pulling their television ads in the Wolverine State and moving their resources to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine.
The decision was another sign of McCain's weakening position amid the nation's economic turbulence, and it came as a surprise even to Michigan's Republican Party chairman, who was notified in a morning phone call.
For much of the summer, McCain's advisors listed Michigan and its 17 electoral votes as one of their top targets for expanding the map beyond the states won by President Bush in 2004. But the McCain campaign's hopes of picking up blue-collar voters in this struggling industrial state appear to be fading.
Obama has shown a clear advantage over McCain on economic issues in recent polls. And that advantage may be particularly pronounced here, where the state's unemployment rate is the highest in the nation at 8.9%.
Professor Ken Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who oversees a project that studies political advertising, said both sides started the summer running hard in Michigan, but polls soured for McCain after the Wall Street collapse. The economic trouble rocking much of the rest of the country now "has been going on in Michigan for four years," he said -- a point Obama hammered as he campaigned here Thursday.
"The playing field has tilted," Goldstein said. "Taking Michigan off the map will obviously mean that McCain will have to win an inside straight -- just about every state George W. Bush won. You can say all you want the race is competitive. If you're pulling out of Michigan, it is big news."
On a conference call with reporters Thursday evening, McCain's aides gave only a cursory explanation for retreating in Michigan -- and noted that Obama too had scaled back his efforts to win red states like Georgia and North Dakota.
McCain senior advisor Greg Strimple said that since he joined the campaign in July, Michigan has "been the worst state of all the states that are in play."
"It's an obvious one, from my perspective, for it to come off the list," Strimple said.
But Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters Thursday evening that the announcement was "a meaningful moment strategically in the campaign."
"Their narrow path got narrower," Plouffe said, referring to the road to the 270 electoral vote threshold both campaigns must meet to win the election.
Plouffe said he was pleased with the Obama campaign's progress in key battleground states. "We've been playing a lot more offense than McCain has," he said.
Though McCain lost the Michigan primary to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney this year, the Arizona senator demonstrated his appeal to Michiganders when he beat Bush here in 2000. And as recently as Tuesday, the campaign was making plans for a rally in Plymouth, Mich., next week. Michigan was McCain's second stop on his post-convention tour, and he held his first town hall meeting with running mate Sarah Palin in Grand Rapids two weeks ago.
Underscoring the importance of Michigan, Obama held rallies Thursday in Grand Rapids and at Michigan State University in East Lansing, while his wife, Michelle, campaigned on the other side of the state.
Spending on television by Obama and McCain and the Republican National Committee in Michigan has been virtually identical. Obama shelled out $3.19 million in the first 2 1/2 months of the general election campaign to McCain's $3.18 million, according to the University of Wisconsin ad project.
Between the beginning of June, when Obama locked up the nomination, and Sept. 7, Obama placed more anti-McCain ads in Michigan than in any state except for Ohio, according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks such advertising.
In recent days on the campaign trail, McCain and Obama have both avoided partisanship while Congress worked on a $700-billion bailout of faltering financial firms. But on Thursday, both candidates pivoted back on offense.
In Michigan, Obama criticized McCain's tax policies as tilted to the rich and said he would be a more effective advocate for Michigan's struggling workers.
"Nine straight months of job loss," Obama said in Grand Rapids, referring to job numbers expected in a new report today. "Yet just two weeks ago John McCain said the fundamentals of the economy were strong. I don't know what yardstick Sen. McCain uses, but where I come from there's nothing more fundamental than a job. . . . The fundamentals of the economy are not strong, and it's time we had a president who understands that."
In Denver, McCain slammed Obama as a tax-raising, big-government liberal who would worsen the nation's economic woes if elected president.
"I have a clear record of working in a bipartisan fashion and putting my country first," said McCain, citing his work on climate change and campaign finance legislation. "Sen. Obama does not."