Tactics set, President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney hurtle toward finish
The race "is definitely going in the right direction," Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, told a Florida radio show Friday. "It's going to come down to turnout, voter enthusiasm."
Despite such optimism, the Electoral College map remains in Obama's favor. He carried more states than he needed in 2008, so he can lose several of them next month and still win a second term.
Romney's path is much narrower. He must take away at least a half-dozen states from Obama. And they can't be just the small ones like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Florida is an absolute must for Romney. Ohio is the next closest thing. Democrats see Ohio, with its lower-than-average unemployment rate and general embrace of the president's auto industry bailout, as their best chance to stop Romney cold.
Rather than pour their heaviest efforts into Florida and risk losing it by a hair, the Obama campaign has placed its heaviest bet on Ohio. That has forced Romney and Ryan to make their own stand there.
The two Republicans spent six of eight days in Ohio after the first debate. Obama has made repeated visits.
More advertising money was being spent in Ohio last week, almost $9 million, than any other state including Florida, where ad time is expensive. The campaigns were spending a combined $7.3 million in Florida last week.
When Democrats are asked about polls that seem to show a pro-Romney drift, they quickly change the subject to Obama's voter-turnout operation.
Some of the Obama campaign's paid workers never left key states after the 2008 election. They have spent four years building files of likely volunteers, supporters and persuadable voters. It's a labor-intensive effort they say Romney cannot match.
Jeremy Bird, Obama's national field director, released a memo Friday about early voting in Ohio. The campaign has 125 field offices "in every corner of the state," Bird wrote. "We are ahead of where we were at this time against John McCain — and ahead of Mitt Romney."
There's anecdotal evidence of strong early voting for Obama in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere, but it's possible that Romney is roughly keeping pace. In Florida, Democrats have cut into the GOP's traditional advantage in absentee balloting. But Romney officials dismiss the numbers.
Many absentee-voting Democrats otherwise would have engaged in another practice, simply called "early voting," which Democrats traditionally have dominated, GOP officials say. They contend there's no net gain for the president.
In Colorado, another battleground state, Romney's ground game "is equal to, if not superior to, the Obama ground game," said Dick Wadhams, a former state Republican Party chairman.
Wadhams said he thinks Colorado suburban women, in particular, are edging towards Romney, reassured by his solid performance in the first debate and his vow to generate more jobs.
Obama, meanwhile, focused his campaign almost entirely on women after last Tuesday's debate, in which Romney spoke awkwardly of receiving "binders full of women" seeking top jobs when he was Massachusetts governor.
Campaigning Friday in northern Virginia, Obama told a heavily female audience that when it comes to issues important to women's health and jobs, his opponent has developed "Romnesia." The president was flanked by signs saying "Women's Health Security."
Romney's jobs-and-economy pitch grew slightly more difficult at the week's end, when nearly all the battleground states reported drops in their unemployment rates. Most were modest, however.
In all-important Ohio, the unemployment rate dropped even though the total number of jobs also fell, due to people retiring or leaving the workforce for other reasons.
GOP strategists say the overall economy remains bleak enough for Romney to make a forceful closing argument: Obama has failed to bring the jobs he promised, and Romney has the skills and philosophy to do better.
"It remains jobs and the economy, and related fiscal issues, which people remain unhappy about," said veteran Republican consultant Charlie Black. "And people believe Romney is up to the task."
Obama volunteers hope to steer enough voters to the polls to overcome the GOP message.
Babington reported from Washington.
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