Mac was back in Minnesota Thursday.

Sending a strong signal he intends to compete in the reliably Democratic state, Republican presidential candidate John McCain dropped in on his regional headquarters in St. Paul to shake hands and pose with staffers and supporters.

It was three weeks to the day since his previous St. Paul visit, a town hall session.

He told his supporters that, come November, "Minnesota will be a battleground state and Minnesota may determine who is the next president of the United States. ... We've got 117 days left and I need you to spend as much time as possible getting every single one of our voters out to the polls."

Telling the volunteers it would be on their shoulders if he loses the state, he sardonically reminded them he was merely delivering "straight talk."

"Every single person in this room has something else to do," McCain told them. "There's no way I can ever repay you."

"I will always act in the best interest of this nation and I will never let you down," he said before making his way out of the room as cameras flashed.

McCain was accompanied by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose presence at the Arizona senator's side once again fanned speculation that he is high on the short list of GOP vice-presidential possibilities. Once again, though, both McCain and Pawlenty declined to address the speculation.

McCain introduced Pawlenty as "one of the great governors of this United States of America, a great friend and a great leader. ... How proud I am of his leadership of this great progressive state."

He introduced Pawlenty's wife, Mary, as "the brains of the outfit," before turning the microphone over to his own wife, Cindy, who said she's "happy and thrilled to have our great convention here" in September.

She said Minnesota is "like a second home" where she has brought her four children to attend summer camps.

The visit was McCain's only public appearance in the Twin Cities Thursday and served as a photo-op pit stop before a town meeting scheduled for Hudson, Wis., this morning.

After greeting his campaign workers Thursday afternoon, he huddled with about 15 independent voters and conducted a Virginia town hall meeting via teleconference.

About 150 volunteers worked the phones as they waited for McCain's arrival, quizzing fellow Minnesotans on their presidential choice and issues such as tax cuts, offshore oil drilling and abortion.

"It's a critical thing to know who's for us, who's against us and who hasn't made up their mind," said Ron Carey, state GOP chairman. "So we're homing in on who's in play and what issues are important to them."

Callers said Republicans they reached generally agreed with McCain on all three issues. "They're pretty much behind him," said Kate Heywood, a homemaker and writer from St. Paul who said she has "definitely drunk the Kool-Aid" for McCain. "I've never believed in a politician the way I do in him," she said of the GOP's presumptive nominee. "I think he represents what Americans want: genuine leadership."

Although Minnesota hasn't gone Republican in a presidential election since 1972, McCain's campaign strategists have made it clear they intend to compete, airing TV ads and ramping up their organization more quickly than Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.

Nonetheless, all recent statewide polls show Obama with a comfortable lead: The most recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll found Obama ahead by 13 percentage points.

"I'd be shocked if Obama didn't have some kind of lead here at this point, but I don't think it's an accident that [McCain] is spending time in this part of the country," Carey said. "I think it's safe to predict Minnesota's going to be hand-to-hand combat in November."

McCain has spent the past week hopscotching across the country, detailing policy positions he says will right the nation's ailing economy. In Hudson today, the emphasis is to be on what he will do to help the nation's women.

Obama tried to steal some of that thunder Thursday, unveiling a plan to help the nation's working women.

Detailing its promises state by state, the campaign said Obama's plan for a $1,000-per-family tax credit would help 1.4 million working women in Minnesota. More than 135,000 Minnesota women stand to benefit if Congress approves Obama's plan to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, the campaign said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaking for Obama's campaign during a conference call with reporters, took aim at McCain adviser Phil Gramm's recent comment that Americans are "whiners" who are suffering from "a mental recession," rather than an economic one.

"Women in this country are tired of men in leadership positions the past few years saying things are all in their heads," Klobuchar said.

During an appearance in Michigan, McCain repudiated Gramm's comments.

"I believe that the person here in Michigan that just lost his job isn't suffering a mental recession," he said. "I believe the mother here in Michigan and around America who is trying to get enough money to educate their children isn't whining. America is in great difficulty and we are experiencing enormous economic challenges as well as others. Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me. So, I strongly disagree."

The AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Obama, also unveiled a direct attack on McCain Thursday in Minnesota and five other battleground states.

It began airing a commercial that tries to separate McCain's military service record and his record in the Senate. In the ad, a veteran says, "Every vet respects John McCain's war record. It's his record in the Senate that I have a problem with."

The New York Times contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184