WASHINGTON — For President Barack Obama, winning re-election rests on a workman-like, get-out-the-vote strategy aimed at protecting key territory in the Midwest, ramping up minority turnout and building early voting leads that could protect against a late surge by Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
It's a far cry from the lofty rhetoric and gauzy closing argument advertisements that defined Obama's final push in 2008. And it's a reflection of a race that remains tight in its final days, and an outcome that could hinge on little more than battleground state turnout.
"We have two jobs: One, persuade the undecideds, and two, to turn our voters out," said Jim Messina, Obama's data-driven campaign manager.
Obama himself has gotten deeply involved in those efforts. He made a personal appeal to 9,000 undecided voters on a conference call from Air Force One, promoted early voting by casting his own ballot before Election Day and offered encouragement to staff and volunteers during numerous stops to battleground state campaign offices.
"I hate to put the burden of the entire world on you, but basically it's all up to you," Obama told volunteers this week in Orlando, Fla. His comments were meant to be light-hearted, but they spoke to the degree to which his campaign is counting on its massive ground game to carry Obama to re-election.
The campaign relied heavily on that operation this week when Superstorm Sandy forced Obama off the campaign trail and back to Washington for three days to oversee the federal response. The Democratic get-out-the-vote effort kept churning, allowing Obama to project presidential leadership and offer comfort in a crisis — intangibles his campaign knows could be beneficial in persuading late-breaking voters.
They helped him win over at least one person: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, who said Obama's handling of the storm was key his decision to endorse the president.
Obama, in his closing argument to voters, is trying to burnish his bipartisan credentials, seeking to convince voters he's the same man who burst into the political spotlight eschewing the notion of red states or blue states.
Polls show Obama and Romney tied nationally. But the president's advisers say the map of competitive states tilts in their favor. The president started the race with more pathways than Romney for reaching the required 270 Electoral College votes, and aides say all of those options are still within reach. Romney's campaign, on the other hand, is still grappling for a clear roadmap to 270.
Nine states are up for grabs: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado and Nevada.
Key to Obama's electoral strategy is protecting a Midwestern firewall: Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, a three-state combination that would put him over the necessary threshold. The president will visit those states multiple times in the campaign's final stretch, including four straight days of travel to Ohio.
Obama can win without Ohio. But if he does carry the state's 18 electoral votes, it would make Romney's path to victory far more difficult, requiring the Republican to win nearly every other competitive state or pull off upsets in traditionally Democratic states.
Private polling from both parties has Obama leading Romney in Ohio, where the president's bailout of the auto industry is popular. And more Democrats than Republicans in the state have cast early votes.
Romney's campaign is looking to expand the battleground map by making a late play for a trio of left-leaning states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. That's forced Obama's team to buy television advertising time in states where it had hoped to avoid spending money.
Obama aides insist it's not in trouble in those states and aides say there are no plans for Obama or Vice President Joe Biden to travel there in the campaign's closing days. Instead, they say their strong fundraising efforts have given them the financial means to defend against Romney's criticism wherever he decides to run ads.
But aides say turnout, not ads, will determine the election. Obama's team has put particular emphasis on ramping up turnout during early voting periods, especially among "sporadic" voters who may be less likely to go to the polls on Election Day.
Their efforts appear to be bearing fruit. Democrats have an edge in votes cast in Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. Republicans have an advantage in Colorado.3 comments on this story
Obama's campaign says boosting early vote totals could put some states out of reach for Romney even before Election Day. In Ohio, for example, Obama aides estimate the Republican would need to carry at least 53 percent of the vote cast there on Tuesday in order to remain in contention.
It's more than just party registration that has Obama's team feeling confident. They tout data showing two-third of those who have already voted were women, young people, blacks and Hispanics. Obama is almost certain to win the majority of those voting blocs.
Aides say minority voting in particular is on track to reach an all-time high, perhaps as high as 28 percent of all voters.