TAMPA, Fla. — A scratchy-voiced President Barack Obama powered through a marathon drive to get his supporters to vote Thursday and planned to set an example by becoming the first president to cast his own ballot ahead of time. Republican Mitt Romney spent one of the precious 12 days before Election Day entirely focused on the Rust Belt battleground of Ohio.
With a new Associated Press-GfK poll showing Romney has erased Obama's 16-point advantage among women, the president tried to keep a GOP abortion controversy alive. The risers behind him stacked with female supporters, Obama made a veiled reference to Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comment that "life is a gift from God," and that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen."
"As we saw again this week, I don't think any politician in Washington, most of whom are male, should be making health care decisions for women," Obama said. "Women can make those decisions themselves."
It was the president's first mention of Mourdock's comment at a rally, but Obama said Wednesday night on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" that "rape is rape." His campaign also has been intensifying its criticism of Romney for refusing to pull his support for Mourdock, even though the Republican presidential nominee said he disagrees with Mourdock's comment.
Beyond the statement from an aide, Romney and his aides have tried to avoid the subject. While picking up breakfast at a downtown Cincinnati diner on Thursday, Romney refused to answer repeated questions from reporters standing nearby about Mourdock's comment and whether he would call for Mourdock to take down a TV ad Romney filmed for him earlier this week.
At a rally later at the Jet Machine manufacturing company, Romney spoke repeatedly about the choices facing American families. He said seniors on Medicare would struggle to find doctors if Obama is re-elected, daughters would face crushing college loan debt and parents would lose choices about where to educate their children.
"This election is not about me. It's not about the Republican Party," Romney told a crowd estimated at 3,000. "It's about America. And it's about your family,"
Romney's campaign reached out to women by sending Ann Romney on daytime's "Rachael Ray" show, where she prepared her meatloaf cakes recipe and took cameras along on a trip to Costco to shop in bulk for family gatherings. Mrs. Romney said that, with 30 mouths to feed, her family always eats buffet-style and that "Mitt is often at the front of the line."
Romney was on a daylong swing through three Ohio towns, sharpening his focus on a state critical to his hopes of winning the White House. The Republican's advisers say their internal data has him tied to win the state's 18 Electoral College votes, but public polling has shown Obama with a slim lead.
Obama, in the midst of a four-state blitz on Thursday, also was scheduled to finish his day in Ohio. Shortly after Romney concludes his evening remarks in Defiance, the president was set to appear 150 miles to the east in Cleveland.
Virginia also got attention from both campaigns on an unseasonably warm October day, with Obama drawing a massive crowd estimated at 15,000 to Richmond's Byrd Park while GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan spoke before a smaller group at the opposite end of the state in Appalachian coal country. Ryan told the audience of about 1,500 that winning a close race won't be enough for the GOP ticket.
"The worst thing that could happen is President Obama gets re-elected and we have more of the same with a debt crisis," Ryan said. "The second worst thing that could happen is we get elected by default, without a mandate."
The AP-GfK poll released Thursday shows the presidential race still a virtual dead heat nationally, with Romney favored by 47 percent of likely voters and Obama by 45 percent. That result is within the poll's 4.2-point margin of error.
Although national polls show the race is close, Romney is struggling to overtake Obama in the state-by-state march to racking up the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. Romney has far fewer paths to reaching that threshold than Obama, who starts with more states — and more Electoral College votes — in his win column. The race is centered on just nine states, where polls show competitive races: Ohio, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin.
The president's morning rally kicked off the second day of his 40-hour battleground state blitz. After spending the night on Air Force One en route to Florida, he was heading to Virginia, Illinois and Ohio before returning to the White House.
Shortly after 7 a.m. and less than five hours after ending his day in Las Vegas, Obama was at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop near downtown Tampa, and minutes later delivered the still warm doughnuts to a nearby firehouse. He said he wanted to come by early — noting he is not often out this early — to thank them for all they do.
Obama then spoke to about 8,500 people at a morning rally in Tampa, a swing area of battleground state Florida.
With a full day of campaigning still ahead of him, Obama's voice was already hoarse. But he told the enthusiastic crowd he was "just going to keep on keeping on until every single person out there who needs to vote is going to go vote."
He noted to cheers that he was going to Chicago later Thursday to participate in early voting and that first lady Michelle Obama already mailed in her ballot. Obama campaign spokesman Jennifer Psaki said they hoped his example would send a message to others in early voting states that they should do so as well.
Obama's campaign also announced joint rallies Monday with Bill Clinton in Orlando, Fla., Youngstown, Ohio, and Prince William County, Va. The president also picked up an endorsement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who supported Obama in 2008. Powell praised Obama's handling of the economic recovery, telling "CBS This Morning:" ''I think we've begun to come out of the dive and we're gaining altitude." White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president learned of the endorsement while visiting the Tampa fire station and called Powell to thank him.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Kasie Hunt in Cincinnati and Julie Pace and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.