WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's plan for victory boils down to this: Convince independent voters he'll change Washington, stoke Republican enthusiasm and avoid unforced errors.
The Republican nominee's path to reaching the necessary 270 electoral votes cuts straight through Rust Belt states. He must stop President Barack Obama from sweeping Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — or win Democratic-tilting Pennsylvania, where he's making a last-ditch effort while prevailing in most other competitive states.
"President Obama promised change, but he could not deliver it. I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it," the former Massachusetts governor told the cheering crowd of thousands Friday, making his closing argument — that he can do what he argues Obama didn't: change the tone in hyperpartisan Washington.
In the final days, Romney is employing a three-pronged approach designed to take advantage of anti-Obama sentiment coursing through the GOP and a general national malaise about where the country is heading at a time of economic sluggishness. The goal: boost turn out Tuesday in a race that polls show is tight both nationally and in the nine states considered the most competitive.
Romney's team is publicly confident.
"We believe Mitt Romney will be the next president of the United States. We feel we are in a very, very good place," Romney strategist Russ Schriefer says, arguing that momentum is on his candidate's side.
Obama's team disagrees, arguing that Romney is running a desperate campaign as he hunts for a state-by-state path toward the magic number of Electoral College votes.
Over the past few days, it's become clear that Romney is trying to build a winning path with or without Ohio's 18 electoral votes. Obama has had a slight but persistent edge in most polls. No Republican candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio.
Aides say they're focused on two routes. Both make the big assumption that Romney will sweep North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, three states Republicans argue are most likely to go Romney's way and the Republican seemingly must win to have a shot at the White House. Beyond that, one path calls for winning Ohio and either Colorado or Iowa; the other calls for winning Colorado and Iowa, and then either New Hampshire or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, where he holds a last-minute rally Sunday in the vote-rich southeastern part of the state.
As he travels to most of those states as the campaign wanes, Romney is making a pitch aimed primarily at the sliver of undecided and independent voters who could tip the balance in a tight race. He's casting himself as the candidate who will change the status quo and work across the aisle to get things done. Aides said polling during the debates showed independents responding favorably to Romney's comments of bipartisanship.
Aides say the pitch is working, citing polls showing Romney gaining ground with independent voters.
Romney's also working to further rile up a Republican base that's already energized by the notion of beating Obama in hopes of turning out conservatives in droves Tuesday.
Romney also is trying to fire up his base by running carefully targeted TV ads in key states aimed at stoking anti-Obama sentiment.
In northwestern Ohio, working-class white voters were the target of TV and radio ads suggesting Chrysler is moving jobs to China at the expense of Ohio. The spots triggered withering criticism from state newspaper editorial boards, U.S. automakers and Obama's campaign, with Vice President Joe Biden calling the claim an "outrageous lie." In Miami, Romney is running an ad — intended for conservative Cuban American voters — that tied Obama to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela. And in northern Virginia, he's airing an ad reassuring suburban women that he supports abortion under certain circumstances.
To ensure all goes as planned, Romney is trying to play it safe and avoid the verbal slip-ups that have caused him heartburn at critical times in the campaign.
He hasn't done interviews with local TV stations in weeks. His last newspaper interview, with the Columbus Dispatch editorial board, was on Oct. 10. His most recent press conference was Sept. 28.
It's a dramatic switch from September, when, trailing in polls, Romney did round after round of interviews with national TV networks as well as local affiliates and repeatedly answered questions from reporters traveling with him.