WASHINGTON — John McCain's efforts to snare Pennsylvania appear to be faltering despite a substantial commitment of his time, leaving him with a narrower path to the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
McCain is targeting Pennsylvania in hopes of winning at least one state that voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004. With 21 electoral votes, a victory in Pennsylvania could offset possible losses in smaller states captured by President Bush in the last contest.
Yet by any number of measures, McCain's prospects are dimming. An aggregate of public polls shows Barack Obama with a double-digit lead in Pennsylvania. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1.1 million, about twice the gap in 2004, state figures show.
What's more, prominent Republicans worry that McCain's message is flawed or is being drowned out by waves of Obama ads.
McCain aides insist that they can still win Pennsylvania. Recognizing the stakes, McCain is spending much of the dwindling amount of time left on the campaign trail traversing the Keystone State.
Depriving Obama of a win here is essential for McCain. If Obama holds Pennsylvania, he can clinch the presidency by winning various combinations of states that voted Republican four years ago but are now tilting Democratic: Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina among them.
A look at McCain's schedule attests to his predicament. He is largely playing defense, trying to hold Republican territory. Apart from Pennsylvania, he has campaigned since Friday in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Missouri -- all states that backed Bush four years ago. Polls show Obama leading or nearly tied in each of them now.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, said of the McCain campaign in an interview Tuesday: "Pennsylvania is essential to their victory plan, though it's a long shot. If you assume Iowa is gone and New Mexico is gone and Virginia is gone, they have to win a substantial blue state. And we're the best choice out of a lot of bad choices."
But Rendell added that an Obama victory was no sure thing.
Race may be a complicating factor. U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said last week that some in western Pennsylvania may be reluctant to vote for Obama because he is black. "There's no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area," Murtha said. He later apologized for the remark.
Rendell said he pressed for former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, popular figures in Pennsylvania, to make return visits before election day. "I'm fighting hard to get our principals back in," Rendell said. "Virtually anything can happen in two weeks."
Tuesday marked the 18th day McCain had visited Pennsylvania in the general election contest. He planned three rallies in the state, crossing east to west from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. His wife, Cindy, made four stops in the Philadelphia area and York, Pa., on Monday, and his running mate, Sarah Palin, appeared in Lancaster over the weekend.
Asked whether McCain might return to Pennsylvania in the 13 days left in the campaign, senior advisor Mark Salter said: "Quite possibly."
For all the commitment McCain has made, some Republicans worry that he faces mounting difficulties.
Richard L. Thornburgh, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that barring a "November surprise," the chances of a McCain victory in the state were small. "That's the only thing that could turn it around, and I don't know what that could be," said Thornburgh, who was attorney general under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Explaining McCain's plight, Thornburgh added: "The economic situation is no help to him. It's always produced an anti-incumbent feeling, and try as he might, McCain can't seem to distance himself from the president on that."
Even so, Thornburgh said, McCain needed to do a better job of fixing responsibility for the financial crisis on Democrats, who've controlled Congress for the last two years.
Kate Harper, a Republican member of the state General Assembly from the Philadelphia suburbs, said McCain's outreach to state voters had been hurt by a lack of money.
"He's having trouble getting his message out," Harper said. "The Obama ads are overwhelming. You can't turn on the radio without hearing Obama ads. I switch to music and he's on all the stations."
Undaunted, McCain aides said they wouldn't give up on the state. "We feel we're going to be successful" in Pennsylvania, Mike DuHaime, political director of the McCain campaign, insisted Tuesday, calling McCain the strongest Republican in the state since Reagan.
In a conference call with reporters, he argued that because Kerry won the state by only 140,000 votes, McCain "needs to flip" only 2,000 votes in each of the state's 67 counties. "You're talking about moving a couple thousand votes per county," he said.
He said the campaign was operating three dozen offices in the state and was making hundreds of thousands of phone calls a week to identify and persuade potential GOP voters.
But if they are generating excitement for their candidate, it is hard to see it at McCain's events.
At a rally in the blue-collar Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem on Tuesday morning, fewer than 500 people showed up. The tiny turnout inside the hangar-sized Technology Creativity Manufacturing center underscored the apparent lack of enthusiasm that dogs McCain. Local GOP offices had promoted the rally, and some in the crowd said they had heard about it on TV news.
The event provided a sharp contrast to a pair of Obama's weekend rallies in Missouri, attended by 75,000 and 100,000 people.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.
Peter Nicholas, reporting from Washington
Bob Drogin, reporting from Bensalem, Pa.