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Obama heads for Republican turf, talking economics to increasingly embattled voters

Democrat Barack Obama heads out for a two-week tour of U.S. battleground states, aiming to draw sharp contrasts with Republican opponent John McCain _ especially on the struggling American economy that has been laid low by shrinking growth, bounding unemployment and staggering increases in energy costs.
McCain planned a series of fundraising stops Monday in Virginia and the nation's capital, looking for donors as the general election campaign begins in earnest now that Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended her bid for the Democratic nomination and robustly threw her support behind Obama over the weekend.
McCain will need all the financial help he can muster as he moves toward the November vote against Obama's well-oiled fundraising machinery that has rolled up an astounding bankroll, much of it from small donors on the Internet.
Obama has raked in $264 million in 16 months. McCain has raised less than half that much, $115 million, in 17 months.
On Monday, Obama also will travel to North Carolina _ a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976 _ to talk economics to an electorate increasingly edgy about its future.
The Illinois senator also plans to push into other Republican bastions with his economic message, hoping to reverse history in places like Missouri, which hasn't voted for a Democrat since 1996 and Virginia, which last voted Democratic in 1964.
By moving into such historically Republican states, Obama could force the McCain camp to spend precious resources defending traditionally home turf.
For his part, Obama faces the huge challenge of wooing the Clinton base, as the Democrats try to patch things up after what was an extended, exhausting and often bitter campaign. Time grows short for Obama on that front with the party convention set for late August in Denver. Through the primary season polls showed Clinton backers _ especially women and working class voters _ increasingly declaring they would vote for McCain rather than Obama.
While Obama feels comfortable with an offensive against McCain on the economy, which has badly faltered in the last months of the Republican Bush administration, the Arizona senator hopes to counter-punch with attacks on his opponent's perceived lack of experience in the international arena.
But McCain is saddled with the Iraq war, which he supported at it's inception and believes must continue to a still undefined U.S. victory. And even if he can gain renewed traction with his Iraq policy, a war opposed by a majority of Americans, the issue has fallen off front pages as voters turn inward, concerned about their faltering economic prospects.
The national average price of regular grade gasoline crept up to $4 (euro2.56) a gallon (3.79 liters) for the first time over the weekend, passing the once-unthinkable milestone just in time for the peak summer travel season.
Prices at the pump were expected to keep climbing, especially after last week's furious surge in oil prices, which neared $140 a barrel in a record-shattering rally Friday.
Truck drivers and others with diesel engines have it even worse. A gallon (3.79 liters) of diesel now sells for $4.762 (euro3.05).
Skyrocketing oil prices are largely to blame for the surge. Soaring demand in Asia and elsewhere ensures global supplies remain tight even as Americans cut back; recent figures from the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration showed U.S. gasoline demand actually fell 1.4 percent over the last four weeks.
Adding to McCain's troubles-by-association with U.S. President George W. Bush, the nation's unemployment rate shot up to 5.5 percent in May, the biggest one-month jump in decades. So far this year, 324,000 people have lost their jobs.
The release of those figures on Friday sent the stock market skidding, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping nearly 400 points. As oil prices hit new highs, home mortgage foreclosures continued to send shock waves through the already wobbly economic system.
Both candidates stayed away from the nation's media microphones Sunday.
McCain had no public events. Obama and his family joined neighbors in Chicago for a bicycle ride along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The Illinois senator and his wife, Michelle, rode to a neighbor's house with their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and the group then headed out for the ride along the scenic lake shore. The outing was cut short by a downpour.
Also Sunday, Obama named Matthew Nugen, his campaign's political director, to oversee operations for the August Democratic National Convention.