HONOLULU, October 24 – Barack Obama quit the White House trail for Hawaii, where he arrived Friday for an emotional reunion with his gravely ill 85-year-old grandmother, 11 days before the US presidential vote.
Madelyn Dunham, who raised the 47-year-old Obama for much of his childhood, is his sole remaining link with his tight-knit family after his mother died of cancer more than a decade ago.
The Democratic nominee’s compassionate leave comes with Republican John McCain searching for a sudden lurch in momentum and new polls showing Obama well positioned in the vital battleground states set to decide the November 4 election.
Obama arrived early Friday in his native state, after an 11-hour flight from Indiana where he held a morning rally on Thursday.
Obama told CBS television that he decided to make the exhausting journey half-way across the Pacific to see Dunham, nicknamed "Toot", despite the crush of campaign events as he "got there too late" when his mother Ann Dunham died.
"We knew that she wasn’t doing well but, you know, the diagnosis was such where we thought we had a little more time and we didn’t. And so I want to make sure that I don’t, I don’t make the same mistake twice," Obama said.
"My grandmother’s the last one left. She has really been the rock of the family, the foundation of the family. Whatever strength, discipline that I have, it comes from her."
Dunham is reportedly suffering from a broken hip and generally failing health. Obama was due to return to the trail in Nevada on Saturday.
The Democrat’s absence, unprecedented this close to election day, gives McCain the chance to grab the limelight as he searches for a way to suddenly shift the momentum of a race that seems to be slipping away.
Obama’s place will be filled by wife Michelle and the campaign will use some of its mammoth multi-million dollar financial advantage over McCain to saturate the airwaves with Obama ads.
A new sheaf of polls in battleground states by Quinnipiac University suggested that the gap between Obama and McCain is narrowing, although the Democratic hopeful remains in the lead.
Obama led the Republican in Florida by 49 to 44 percent, compared to a 51-43 percent lead in the last survey October 1, and in another key state Pennsylvania by 53-40 percent, compared to 54-39 percent last time.
Cain lost ground in Ohio, often the decisive state in presidential elections, where Obama leads 52-38 percent, expanding his lead of 50-42 percent at the beginning of this month.
No candidate has been elected president since 1960 without taking two of these three states in the US electoral college that ultimately decides who the next president will be.
"To overcome Senator Obama’s lead in Ohio, Senator McCain would have to get virtually every voter who remains undecided plus almost all of the Obama supporters who said they still might change their minds," said Quinnipiac assistant director of polling Peter Brown.
McCain set off on a bus tour through key parts of Florida on Thursday dedicated to Joe the Plumber, the Ohio tradesman who has become an emblem for his claims that Obama wants to use higher taxes on small business to "redistribute wealth."
"Senator Obama says he’s trying to soak the rich but it’s the middle class who are going to get wet," McCain told a rally in Sarasota.
"The answer to a slowing economy is not higher taxes, but that’s exactly what will happen when the Democrats have total control of Congress," McCain said, adding: "I’m not going to let that happen."
McCain said Obama’s tax plans and health care policy will "kill jobs," and noted that small businesses had managed to create around 300,000 jobs, even as the broader economy lost more than 700,000 jobs so far this year.
"In this country we believe in spreading opportunity for those whose create jobs and those who need them."
But Obama charged in Indianapolis that McCain wanted to offer tax breaks to huge US corporations he blamed for shipping jobs overseas.
"My opponent may call that "fundamental economics" but we know that’s just another name for the Wall Street first, Main Street last economic philosophy we’ve had for the past eight years, and that’s fundamentally wrong."
In Paris, an opinion poll for France 24 television and the International Herald Tribune indicated that Europeans, particularly the French and Germans, overwhelmingly want Obama to win, with only a tiny minority favoring McCain.