WASHINGTON (AP) — Barack Obama’s campaign has approached Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel about possibly serving as White House chief of staff, officials said Thursday as the marathon presidential race entered its final, frenzied stretch with a Democratic tilt.

The disclosure came as Republican John McCain, in need of a comeback, focused on pocketbook issues amid fresh signs of a recession. “Ohio is hurting now, people in Ohio are having trouble staying in their homes, keeping their jobs,” he said as he set out on a two-day bus tour of the state.

“We have got to get this economy out of the ditch.”

Obama, bidding to become the first black president, also pointed to the government’s report that the economy had declined in the third quarter. He told a large crowd in Florida that McCain has been perched “right next to George Bush” for eight years, and consumers are paying a steep price for their partnership.

The Democrats who described the Obama campaign’s approach to Emanuel spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to be quoted by name. An aide to the congressman, Sarah Feinberg, said in an e-mail that he “has not been contacted to take a job in an administration that does not yet exist. Everyone is focused on Election Day, as they should be.”

Asked about Emanuel after touching down in Colombia, Mo., on Thursday night, Obama said only: “I’m trying to win an election.” Then, referring to campaign manager David Plouffe, he said: “Plouffe is my chief of staff.”

Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton earlier had said: “There’s no news because there’s no job to offer.”

Emanuel is a veteran of President Clinton’s White House, and has made a rapid ascent of the House leadership ladder since his election to Congress. He was chairman of the Democratic campaign committee two years ago when the party won a majority for the first time in more than a decade, and he cemented his reputation as a prodigious fundraiser and strong-willed political strategist.

Both Obama and McCain have authorized their staffs to begin transition operations in recent weeks — although only one of them will be able to make use of the results. As far as is known, no job offers have been made by either man.

Even so, Republicans seized on the disclosure. “Emanuel is among the most vitriolic and partisan people in American politics,” said Alex Conant, a Republican National Committee spokesman. “Reports that Obama wants him to be White House chief of staff undercut any claims to unity and bipartisanship, and should alarm every voter.”

As the race neared an end, opinion polls, early voting statistics and even the candidates’ campaign schedules all make it look like the race is Obama’s to lose.

The Democrat campaigned exclusively in traditionally Republican states during the day, flying from Florida to Virginia to Missouri, in hopes of winning a sizable victory on Tuesday. Polls consistently show him ahead nationally as well as in a half-dozen states that sided with Bush in 2004, and tied in three more.

McCain’s bus tour of Ohio underscored his political predicament. Bush won the state twice, it has voted for the winner in every presidential election for 20 years, and public and private surveys all give Obama the advantage.

Both campaigns invested heavily in turning out early voters.

Officials in North Carolina said roughly 30 percent of all registered voters had already cast ballots — about 1.7 million in all — and the Board of Elections ordered the state’s 100 counties to keep longer voting hours.

Like the opinion polls, the early ballot count favored Obama. Officials in Iowa, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada as well as North Carolina said more Democrats than Republicans had cast ballots, in some cases by lopsided margins.

Democrats, increasingly optimistic about regaining the White House, looked forward to padding their majorities in Congress, too, and then tackling the economy and bringing the war in Iraq to an end.

But McCain and his aides sought to stoke doubts about one-party government. The campaign challenged Obama to say whether he supports a 25 percent cut in defense spending that is advocated by some in his party

In Sarasota, his first stop of the day, Obama tried to take advantage of the day’s dreary business news, a government report that consumers had cut back spending so sharply that the economy had shrunk at an annual rate of 0.3 percent in the third quarter.

It was the economy’s worst showing since the fall of 2001, when a recession in progress was compounded by the impacts of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“Folks have to watch every penny, tighten their belts,” said Obama, contending that the downturn was the result of eight years of Republican economic policies.

“If you want to know where John McCain will drive this economy, just look in the rearview mirror. Because when it comes to our economic policies, John McCain has been right next to George Bush. He’s been sitting there in the passenger seat, ready to take over, every step of the way,” he added.

Obama’s campaign reinforced the rhetoric with a new television commercial. It showed the faces of Bush and McCain together in a car’s rearview mirror as the announcer said, “Look behind you. We can’t afford more of the same.”

In a second ad, Obama touted endorsements from Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Warren Buffett, arguably the nation’s best known investor.

McCain countered with a new ad in Florida in which Gov. Charlie Crist heaped praise on the Republican candidate. “A reformer, a maverick, he’ll fight out-of-control spending and keep our taxes down,” Crist says. “John McCain never quits and he’ll always fight for you.”

McCain’s first stop of the day was in chilly Defiance, Ohio, where he did not dwell on the economic report. Instead, he pointed to Exxon Mobil’s announcement of a $14.83 billion profit in the third quarter, a record, and said Obama had voted for legislation that included millions in tax breaks for oil companies.

“Sen. Obama voted for billions in corporate giveaways to the oil companies,” said McCain in an apparent reference to a 2005 energy bill Bush pushed through Congress.

“I voted against it,” the Arizona Republican said.

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