DAVENPORT, IOWA — With little more than three weeks before election day, John McCain made the surprising decision to campaign Saturday in Iowa -- a state he largely spurned in the 2000 and 2008 presidential caucuses and where he is trailing his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, by more than 10 percentage points.
During a midday rally here, the Republican nominee pulled no punches about his position and vowed to change it.
"The political pundits have been wrong several times, and they're wrong, because we will win the state of Iowa," McCain told more than 1,000 people in Davenport's RiverCenter.
"If we see a poll that shows us a little bit behind, that means we're going to fight harder."
But the Hawkeye State has long been difficult ground for McCain. Some Iowans admire his candor, but he has put others off with his outspoken opposition to agricultural subsidies -- namely ethanol.
When McCain skipped the 2000 caucuses to focus on New Hampshire, he finished fifth in Iowa, with just 5% of the vote. After barely campaigning in Iowa this year, he wound up fourth.
Despite the current gap in the polls, Iowa is one of the few states where McCain is outspending his opponent.
And his decision to spend one of the few days he has left flying in for a single event in Davenport suggests that the McCain campaign believes it has a real chance to win the state that President Bush won by some 10,000 votes in 2004.
The optimism puzzles some longtime political observers, like David Redlawsk, an associate professor at the University of Iowa and director of the Hawkeye Poll.
"It's really surprising that at this stage of the campaign -- when the most valuable thing a candidate has is his time -- that he'd be putting the time into a state that really does look out of reach, at least by all public indicators," Redlawsk said.
But Mike DuHaime, political director for McCain, insisted that internal polling showed a much closer race between the Arizona senator and Obama.
"It's no doubt a tough state -- it's gone Republican only once since 1984 . . . but it's a state we feel good about," DuHaime said.
He said that Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa -- all states McCain has visited in the last few days -- could move in a block for the Republican come November.
Analysts including J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Des Moines Register's poll, said they had yet to see evidence for the campaign's claim.
"I have to say I'm mystified," Selzer said, adding that it was odd McCain would target the eastern side of the state, closer to Obama's home state of Illinois.
"If you just look at the number of offices that have opened [for Obama], the ground game that's in place, it is hard to see [Iowa] as really being in play."
Democrats have an added advantage this year: Because of aggressive registration efforts in Iowa, they have about 100,000 more potential voters there than Republicans do.
Four years ago, Republicans had about 4,400 more registered voters than did Democrats.
But the biggest hurdle for the McCain campaign may be Obama's formidable ground operation, which helped him win the Iowa caucuses.
"Because of the way the caucuses operate, people are just used to being reached out to at a very personal level," Red- lawsk said.
"The McCain campaign doesn't have the infrastructure in place to do that. The Bush campaign did."
McCain has fewer than half as many Iowa offices as Obama, according to DuHaime, and the paid Republican staffers are vastly outnumbered.
But, DuHaime said, "I'll take what I think is a battle-tested group of staff and volunteers, and I'll put it up against more money and more staff any day."
What is still unknown here is the extent to which McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, could bolster GOP enthusiasm and help Republicans turn out the vote.
The equalizer to Obama's massive ground operation, said Drake University politics professor Dennis Goldford, could be the evangelicals across Iowa.
"Evangelical churches have served as an organizing base for conservative candidates. . . . The Palin pick, by energizing them, gives McCain an on-the-ground force of volunteers," Goldford said.
"Are they as well-organized and dedicated as the Obama folks? I'm not sure. They certainly weren't before Palin."
One of those Palin converts is Steve Balk, who was unenthusiastic about McCain but began volunteering after the Alaska governor joined his ticket.
"John is not a conservative. I'm a conservative; she's a conservative," said Balk, a 38-year-old lawyer, after attending McCain's rally Saturday. "I think she'll bring volunteers."
He added with a smile: "I wish she had come along today."