10-23-2016  5:14 am      •     
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WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the U.S. presidential contest's final frenzied weekend, a confident Barack Obama promised to heal America's political divisions while rival John McCain fought to hold on to Republican-leaning states and pledged to score a historic upset.
For Obama, it was a time for soaring rhetoric and forays deep into Republican territory, buoyed by record campaign donations and encouraging poll numbers. "We have a righteous wind at our back," he said Saturday of his bid to become the first black American president.
For McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, the weekend was his last chance to persuade voters to defy the polls and sweep him into office.
"We're a few points down but we're coming back," he told supporters in Virginia. "I'm not afraid of the fight, I'm ready for it and you're going to fight with me."
Obama on Saturday campaigned in Nevada, Colorado and Missouri, all states that voted for President George W. Bush four years ago, while McCain struggled to keep Virginia from voting for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964.
Both candidates were backed by armies of supporters manning phone banks, handing out brochures and spinning journalists as the campaigns made their final push in a race that carried a price tag estimated at $2 billion.
McCain's hopes hinged on winning all or nearly all the states that carried Bush to victory in 2004, and possibly carrying Pennsylvania to give him a margin for error in America's state-by-state system of choosing a president.
Both candidates have appealed to supporters to turn out, saying the stakes could scarcely be higher.
"If you give me your vote on Tuesday, we won't just win this election -- together, we will change this country and change the world," Obama said Saturday in a nationwide Democratic radio address.
He hammered away at his campaign themes, promising tax breaks for families, lower health care costs and an end to the Iraq war.
He also sought to saddle McCain with the record of President George W. Bush, who has avoided Republican campaign events apparently because of his low approval ratings.
While Bush has remained on the sidelines, Vice President Dick Cheney said Saturday the U.S. "cannot afford the high tax liberalism of Barack Obama and Joe Biden" and supported McCain.
Obama pounced on the remark in Pueblo, Colorado, where he said McCain had earned the endorsement through support of White House social and economic policies, seeking to appeal to American voters anxious about the teetering U.S. economy.
"Bush and Cheney have dug a deep hole," Obama said. "Now they're trying to hand the shovel to McCain."
North Carolina officials were decrying the appearance of a casket with an anti-Barack Obama sticker at a Cravens County polling place.
State Democrats said Saturday the coffin and sticker are an attempt to intimidate people voting early. Republican Party spokesman Brent Woodcox told The (Raleigh) News & Observer that citizens should be outraged.
The NAACP says the casket was in place for at least several hours. A bumper sticker on it showed an image of Obama and the phrase "O' No!"
Meanwhile, federal officials say Justice Department personnel will monitor voting Tuesday in several counties in North Carolina and South Carolina as part of a nationwide effort to protect voting rights and prevent fraud. Observers will be in Alamance County, N.C.; and in Dorchester and Georgetown counties in South Carolina.
McCain meanwhile blasted Obama for saying that his "faith in the American people was vindicated" by his victory in the Iowa caucuses in January. Obama made the remark Friday in Iowa.
"My country has never had to prove anything to me, my friends," McCain said in Virginia on Saturday. "I've always had faith in it and I've been humbled and honored to serve it."
In Missouri, Obama was asked if he was worried about tightening polls in the last days.
"I never worry about the polls. Should I worry about the polls?" he said teasingly.
Obama's apparent optimism is based on what looks like a solid lead in the polls. An Associated Press-Yahoo News national poll of likely voters put the first-term Illinois senator ahead, 51 to 43, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
McCain's campaign says the Arizona senator is closing the gap in the final days. Privately, McCain's aides said he trailed Obama by just 4 points nationwide in internal polling.
According to the AP-Yahoo poll, one in seven voters _ 14 percent of the total _ said they were undecided or might yet change their minds. But a rule of thumb among pollsters is that undecided voters generally split evenly between the leading candidates.
Obama has rallied huge crowds by stressing that he would take the U.S. in a new direction at home and abroad. But, McCain and his supporters have fought back, accusing Obama of associating with radicals, advocating surrender in Iraq and supporting socialist economic policies.
During his nationwide radio address Saturday, McCain pledged to steer the U.S. through the current tough economic times. But he warned that Americans should not lose sight of the international threats the country faces _ threats he says Obama is too inexperienced to handle.
In the final hours of the race, both campaigns were braced for surprises. One came late Friday, after the AP learned that Obama's aunt was apparently in the U.S. illegally.
Zeituni Onyango, 56, was instructed to return to Kenya four years ago by a U.S. immigration judge who denied her asylum request. She lives in Boston.
In a statement to the AP, the Obama campaign said the candidate "has no knowledge of her status but obviously believes that any and all appropriate laws be followed." The campaign was also returning $260 that Onyango had contributed over several months.
Barring major news, the candidates will continue the strategic chess game of state-by-state campaigning that marks U.S. presidential contests.
Under the U.S. system, the president is not elected by direct popular vote nationwide. Instead, the successful candidate must win 270 out of 538 electoral votes in what amounts to a series of individual state contests. Electoral votes are allocated to each state roughly according to population.
While McCain appeared to be struggling to gain ground, he has pulled off upsets before. After his campaign was declared dead last year, he went on to win the Republican nomination.
But McCain may be running out of time. In recent weeks, his campaign has been plagued by internal bickering and divisions in the party ranks, particularly over his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Obama was scheduled to spend Sunday in Ohio, where he was to appear at a Cleveland rally with the rock singer Bruce Springsteen. On Monday, the last day of the campaign, he was headed for Virginia and Florida.
McCain appeared late Saturday on "Saturday Night Live," a satirical television show, to poke fun at his presidential campaign's financial shortcomings and his reputation as a political maverick.
He was to visit eight states over the next three days, winding up with a midnight rally in his home state of Arizona.
In another awkward moment for Palin, she was hoodwinked by a Canadian comedian posing as French President Nicolas Sarkozy into saying that "maybe in 8 years" she will be president.
She unwittingly discusses politics, the perils of hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney, and Sarkozy's "beautiful wife," in the 6-minute telephone call with comedian Marc-Antoine Audette.
Playing off Palin's much-mocked comment in an early television interview that she had insights into foreign policy because "you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska," the caller tells her: "You know we have a lot in common also, because except from my house I can see Belgium."
She replies: "Well, see, we're right next door to different countries that we all need to be working with, yes."

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