Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The number of Republican red states where Barack Obama leads is growing, reducing the states that are in play and thus the electoral votes that John McCain needs to win in November.

As of this week, the freshman liberal senator led or held the edge in Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico and Colorado -- eight states that can deliver 101 electoral votes.

President Bush previously won all of these states along with a bunch of others that gave him 286 electoral votes to John Kerry's 251. McCain can't afford to lose any of these red states, unless he can offset his losses by picking off a number of Democratic blue states and that seems rather problematic right now (though polls show tightening races in Minnesota and Wisconsin).

But with a little more than four weeks remaining in the presidential contest in a brutal economic environment, the grim reality facing McCain is that his rival is leading in more than half-a-dozen red states, while he cannot point to a single blue state where he is ahead.

That is the predicament in which he now finds himself as Republican strategists grow increasingly pessimistic about his chances against the Obama juggernaut, propelled by a national mood of economic gloom.

For months, Obama has been leading in several red states that have been trending Democratic, but the Arizona Republican has been able to hold the edge in other must-win battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio.

Now even these economically distressed states appear to be leaning toward the Democratic column, along with several others, as undecided voters begin making up their minds in Obama's favor in the heat of an economy teetering toward recession.

Fearing McCain is fast running out of time to structurally change the election's strategic focus, Republican strategists say his only hope now is to make his rival's judgment, inexperience and tax increases the central issues in the campaign's remaining weeks.

"McCain has got to make the campaign about Barack Obama. He's got to say that, with everything going on in the world, my opponent hasn't completed a full term in office other than in the Illinois state legislature -- that he is not ready to lead, that he is a risk that Americans cannot afford to take," said GOP campaign adviser John Brabender.

The contrast between the two candidates on experience alone is stark. Barack Obama has been a U.S. senator for about three and a half years, most of which time he has been on the campaign trail.

He has in that time held no oversight hearings, even though he chairs a subcommittee, led no legislative battles, and led no efforts to work across the aisle in behalf of the "new kind of politics" that he has made the mantra of his campaign.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.