BOCA RATON — After a consequential series of debates in their deadlocked contest, President Obama and Mitt Romney will now go at it, mano a mano, in a closing burst of swing-state campaigning that will decide the presidency.
In Monday night’s final televised forum, Obama was the aggressor and appeared to get the better of the Republican challenger. But it will be days before it’s clear whether the encounter did much to alter the overall direction of the race — which has moved Romney’s way over the last few weeks.
In the meantime, the campaign will resume its singular course: Romney arguing that Obama has failed to bring back U.S. jobs, and Obama hoping to muster enough of his base to offset lingering concerns about the economy.
The president is setting out midweek on an eight-state fly-around, sleeping one night aboard Air Force One to dramatize the stakes. At this stage of a campaign, a candidate’s itinerary is a road map to his electoral strategy, and Obama’s route traces the geography of a down-to-the-wire election.
Obama will fly west to Colorado and Nevada, then back to Florida and Virginia. He’ll make in-between stops in Iowa and Ohio. All are tossup states.
It is the kind of frenzied, coast-to-coast barnstorming that a candidate typically undertakes in the final hours of a presidential campaign. That Obama is launching his on Wednesday - nearly two weeks before election day — speaks to the hyper-competitiveness of this fall’s contest, as well as a growing trend toward early voting. His only non-battleground stop — other than an appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show” in Burbank — will be to his hometown of Chicago, where he will cast his early ballot in person.
Romney will be heading out to the same states, starting with Nevada and Colorado, then touching down in Ohio, the most important state of all. Ohio made the difference in 2004, when voters returned an incumbent president to office by a mere
2.5 percentage points in the popular vote nationwide, and this year could easily be as tight.
If so, the race will end in the same way as other recent elections, except for Obama’s 2008 triumph — with a deeply polarized electorate in a country that remains evenly divided. Two new national polls, released over the last 48 hours, found that a single percentage point separates the two men — a statistical tie. And the latest opinion surveys in battleground states show that either man could win the White House.
In their final debate, the candidates adopted sharply contrasting styles, but there were no striking disagreements over policy questions. Instead, Romney went out of his way to mute any differences on such key issues as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the use of military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama had a built-in advantage over his less experienced opponent, and he wasn’t shy about using it. He boasted of keeping Americans safe for four years, ending the war in Iraq and starting to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. He invoked his accomplishments as president and accused Romney of being “all over the map” on national security.
But Romney never took the bait. Instead, he cautiously struck a balance between his professed desire to project stronger American leadership around the globe with an effort to appear compassionate and avoid any hint of bellicosity. It was an approach clearly designed to avoid alienating the most important swing group in this year’s election — women — and perhaps sit on a lead.
Still, neither man was eager to spend the entire time on foreign policy, a topic far down on voters’ agenda. And while it took Romney almost half an hour to start working the domestic economy into his answers, he had more than matched Obama in that department by the time the debate ended.
The race will now turn on those closer-to-home issues, as well as the in-person campaigning by the candidates and key surrogates and their competing voter-turnout operations. Across the battleground states, ads, mailers and door-to-door enticements continue, fed by millions of dollars raised by both candidates.
The next two weeks “are about persuading the undecideds and turning out your voters, and our ground operation gives us the opportunity to do both, which is very important,” said Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said the GOP nominee would have “a very intense schedule,” sometimes touching down in three different states in a day. Another aide said that Romney’s time would be devoted overwhelmingly to the six or seven states where the race is effectively tied, with occasional forays into territory where Obama is favored but the outcome could still be in doubt.
Like the Obama campaign, Romney’s forces are placing a heavy emphasis on getting supporters to cast ballots as early as possible in swing states.
“It’s no longer that crucial 72-hour stage” leading up to the election, said Madden, a longtime Romney advisor. “It’s now the crucial two-week stage, with early voting. We’re going toe to toe with the Obama ground operation in all these key states.”
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