Campaigns Target Two Often-Overlooked States

With some models predicting a possible tie in the Electoral College, the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama are scrambling for every last electoral vote.

That scramble has focused new attention on two unlikely states: Nebraska and Maine.

The states give two votes each to the statewide winner, but split the rest of their electoral votes by congressional district. So while presidential candidates have largely ignored Nebraska and Maine in past years, the campaigns are trying a different approach this time.

Nebraska

The last time Nebraska voted for a Democrat for president was 1964 — when McCain was a young naval aviator and Obama was a 3-year-old. Since then, the state has been one of the most reliably Republican in the nation, making Nebraska predictable and fairly safe to ignore for candidates from both major parties — but not this year.

While campaigning in Omaha on Sunday, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took time to deny what she had heard on TV about her visit.

"The pundit was saying, 'The only reason she'd be going there was because they're scared. So they got to go there and shore up votes.' And I so wanted to reach into that TV and say, 'No, I'm going to Nebraska because I want to go to Nebraska,' " Palin said.

But aside from Palin's campaign rhetoric, there's likely another reason for the candidate's stopover: Obama's campaign is going hard after votes.

Inside a beige stucco strip mall office, Obama volunteers are targeting the Electoral College vote in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, which has more minorities, union members and Democrats than anywhere else in the state.

Nebraska Republican Chairman Mark Quandahl says he doesn't like the 1991 law that allows splitting the state's five electoral votes.

"When the Electoral College system was set up, basically it was set up to benefit smaller states, such as a Maine, or a Nebraska," he said. "To split them up just kind of further marginalizes their impact."

Loree Bykerk, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, disagrees. She says splitting electoral votes reduces the chance that a candidate will win the popular vote and lose in the Electoral College.

Bykerk also says the winner-take-all system enhances the power of the big states "because you just have to get that bare majority of votes and you get all those electoral votes from California, New York and Texas."

For now, Nebraska's unusual law is bringing attention to a state that Democratic and Republican strategists have largely ignored for decades.

Maine

In Maine, polls show Obama's sizable lead over McCain may have narrowed in recent months. There's a renewed battle for the Pine Tree State because of the way Maine's four electoral votes are apportioned. Two votes go to the overall winner, and one goes to the winner in each of the state's two congressional districts.

With an Alaskan outdoorswoman on the ticket, McCain supporters are focusing on Maine's heavily forested 2nd District, where moose hunting and snowmobiling are arguably as popular as baseball and apple pie.

"It is certainly more rural in nature, and I think those communities that are more rural in nature have a lot in common with the McCain-Palin ticket," says Josh Tardy, vice chairman of the McCain-Palin campaign in Maine. "I also think that just the overall reform message plays in both congressional districts and all parts of this state, and I think that's really the message that's going to win the day for the McCain-Palin ticket — if they're going to win the day."

Tardy is not troubled by the fact that Democratic candidates have prevailed in Maine's 2nd Congressional District in the past two presidential elections.

And — for their part — Obama's campaign organizers say they are not about to change their strategy.

"When it comes down to the economy, when it comes to who has the health care plan, when it comes to the price of heating oil and gas prices, Sen. Obama clearly has a plan for Mainers and America, whereas Sen. McCain doesn't," says Toby McGrath, Obama's state director in Maine.

One group that has voted to endorse the McCain-Palin ticket is the Maine Snowmobile Association, which has 30,000 members.

"I can easily see that a lot of our members would look at a couple like [McCain-Palin] and say, 'Hey, they're kind of like us,' " says the association's executive director, Bob Meyers.

Both the McCain and Obama campaigns say they would not be surprised if the candidates barnstormed through Maine in the next few weeks.

Frank Knapp reports from member station NET Radio in Nebraska. Susan Sharon reports from member station Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Lewiston, Maine.

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