“I will lead America to a better place, where confidence in the future is assured, not questioned,” the GOP challenger told an ebullient crowd at the Wisconsin state fairgrounds here. “This is not a time for America to settle. We’re four days away from a fresh start, four days away from the first day of a new beginning.”
From the start, the two campaigns have had different theories of the race — Romney’s being that it would be a referendum on Obama; Obama’s that it would be a comparative choice between the two candidates. But in the final days, both sides appear to have realized that this election is both. The challenger seeking to unseat an incumbent must make a case for himself. The incumbent seeking to hold onto his office must not only convince voters that the alternative would be worse, but also that he has earned the right to another term.
So Obama found himself heading into Election Day in the traditional posture for an incumbent under siege — the fighter, not the conciliator, wiser for the experience.
“I’m a very nice guy, people will tell you. I really am,” Obama said.
But if “the price of peace in Washington” means cutting deals to slash student financial aid or give health insurance companies more power, “I’m not going to make that deal,” the president said at a high school gym in Springfield, Ohio, at the second of three rallies Friday in that crucial state.
And he pledged, “I am a long ways away from giving up on this fight. I got a lot of fight left in me. I don’t get tired. I don’t grow weary. I hope you aren’t tired either, Ohio.”
Though the polls show the race to be close, it is not because the voters lack a contrast, and both candidates are using their last hours of frenzied campaigning to highlight that choice.
Romney ended the day in West Chester, a suburb of Cincinnati, where he reunited with his wife, Ann, their five sons and nearly 100 top surrogates for a huge rally kicking off the three-day sprint to Election Day.
From there, Romney set off on a swing from New Hampshire to Iowa to Colorado and, on Sunday, to Pennsylvania. Romney is making an eleventh-hour gamble to contest the Keystone State, which leans Democratic but, with 20 electoral votes, could give him an alternate path to victory. Meanwhile, he is dispatching his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to Minnesota, another leaning-Democratic state that Romney is trying to snatch away from Obama.
Obama is setting off on a whirlwind tour of his own, with plans to stump Saturday in Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin and in a slew of other states Sunday. At various stops, he will be joined by former President Bill Clinton and singers Katy Perry, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp.
Adding punctuation to the two candidates’ rhetoric was a fresh monthly jobs report — one that each candidate seized upon to underscore his argument.
Having arrived here from Mexico when he was 18, Espinal, like many new Latino voters in Northern Virginia, is inclined to vote for the president, in part because of the Republican challenger’s positions on immigration. But he says he is not 100 percent certain and wonders why the Democratic side has not contacted him.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” Espinal said. “One party says one thing, one party says another thing, so it is hard to know.”
In the world of political junkies and campaign workers, the undecided voter in the last days of a hard-fought and massively expensive marathon is an odd bird, a source of frustration and even private derision. After all this, how could they not know?
But on the streets of five highly contested counties in Virginia — which, along with Ohio and Florida, is one of the most important remaining battleground states — plenty of people haven’t made up their minds. Both sides think that what they do in the next six days can make the difference in persuading those last few voters and — more important now — in pressing supporters to act on their intentions.
It is the first time in decades that Democrats and Republicans are making such a strong, late push in Virginia. Romney’s operation has contacted far more Virginians than John McCain’s did in 2008, but even campaign officials don’t know whether that reflects rising enthusiasm or a better-managed effort.
Obama’s campaign contends that it has expanded the grass-roots network that produced unusually strong turnout four years ago, but it is unclear whether it is reaching new voters or merely shoring up support among voters who may not be as excited as they were last time.
But many voters don’t share the politicians’ faith in the effectiveness of their campaigns. “I’ve literally gotten called several times by the Obama campaign,” said Jake Guinard, 23, who lives in Centreville. “I’ll probably vote for him, but of all the Republicans, Romney was the one I was most comfortable with. I just wish they’d both say what they’d really do instead of just calling the other guy terrible.”
Even with the Sandy megastorm forcing cancellation of some rallies and phone banks, and suspension of in-person absentee voting in some populous areas on Monday and Tuesday, what insiders call the ground game has gone into hyperdrive.
According to The Washington Post’s latest Virginia poll, the Obama and Romney campaigns have contacted — by phone, e-mail or in person — 44 percent and 41 percent of likely voters, respectively. Two-thirds of those reached by Obama and nearly three-quarters of those reached by Romney say they were contacted in the past week.
As a governor, Romney requested federal disaster assistance for storm cleanup, and he has toured storm-ravaged communities as a presidential candidate. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), joined House Republicans in blocking disaster relief funds last year amid disagreements over federal spending — and Romney agreed with suggestions that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be dissolved as part of federal budget cuts.
When moderator John King suggested during a June 2011 CNN debate that federal disaster response could be curtailed to save federal dollars, Romney replied: “Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
Romney has not made similar comments since the debate, and aides insisted Monday that Romney would not abolish FEMA as president.
“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokeswoman Amanda Hennenberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
But what Romney now believes is exactly how the system currently works: Local and state officials respond to disasters and make requests of the federal government for additional supplies or money only when needed. Reforms enacted since Hurricane Katrina now permit governors to make requests in advance to ensure that federal officials are on the ground to assist with initial damage assessments and more quickly report back to Washington for help.
For example, Obama has signed at least six federal emergency disaster declarations in the last 24 hours at the request of state governors, directing FEMA to deploy more resources in anticipation of significant recovery efforts. He abruptly canceled campaign stops for Monday and Tuesday in order to return to the White House to oversee the federal government’s evolving storm response.
“Anything they need, we will be there,” Obama said Sunday in a message to people affected by the storm, adding during a visit to FEMA headquarters that his administration would provide the “best possible response to a big and messy system.”
The spin wars are under way in Ohio.
Both campaigns released memos Thursday claiming an advantage among early voters in the Buckeye State.
Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign said Republicans are outperforming voter-registration levels in seven of Ohio’s largest counties in absentee-ballot requests and early voting. Overall, according to the campaign, registered Republicans represent 19 percent of all registered voters but account for 29 percent of those who have requested absentee ballots or have voted early.
Not to be outdone, President Obama’s campaign served up own memo late Tuesday with a series of statistics claiming that early voting favors him. The memo, from national field director Jeremy Bird, cited four public polls, all of which give Obama a double-digit lead among early voters and absentee voters.
The most credible of those four, a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey, found that Obama leads by 26 points (63/37) among those who have voted already.
Furthermore, Bird said, four in five Ohioans who registered to vote in 2012 are either women, younger than 30 or African-american or Latino . All, Bird said, are groups that “strongly favor” Obama. And two-thirds of those who have voted live in counties that Obama won four years ago.
So who’s right? According to Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who studies voting trends, the Republican claims are not quite right.
“Republicans have crowed that the number of Ohio-registered Republicans voting early has increased from 2008,” McDonald wrote last week. “The problem with this assertion is that Ohio does not have party registration. ‘Party’ in Ohio is a record of the last party primary a voter participated in. Naturally, with only a contested 2012 Republican presidential primary, the number of ‘registered Republicans’ in the state increased.”
That leaves Romney with a very narrow path to victory, one that likely requires him to win large battlegrounds such as Florida, Virginia and Colorado along with Ohio, a swing state so critical that he is making four stops there in two days this week.
Romney’s advisers acknowledge that he still has work to do in Ohio. Just days ago, Romney moved five campaign workers from Pennsylvania to Ohio, one aide said. And though the Ohio race has grown more competitive — with Romney drawing within 5 percentage points of Obama, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday — the president still holds a lead in a state no Republican has ever won the presidency without.
If the narrow electoral map for Romney remains relatively fixed, the same appears true for President Obama, whose advisers say they are committed to the handful of states they targeted months ago. When Obama appeared to hold a commanding lead across numerous states early last week, his strategists said they would not make a concerted play for some that appeared almost within reach, such as Arizona. Now that the race is closer, they say they are fortifying their existing borders, which allow him several options for getting to 270.
“What you’ve seen is a stable map for a very long time,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said in an interview Tuesday.
The result is the smallest, most rigid playing field in recent history: One that excludes 41 states.
Locked up states
Both campaigns agree that 36 states are not competitive this year, with 22 of them expected to vote for Romney and 14 for Obama. That number is misleading, though, because the Obama states are more populous; when tallied according to electoral votes, those states give Obama 197 electoral votes and Romney 169.
Both Obama and Romney have spent the bulk of their money and attention this year in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Beyond those nine, another six are not being heavily contested but nor do the two campaigns agree that their outcome is certain.
No state illustrates the narrowness of this year’s playing field more than Ohio, where the candidates are spending more time than anywhere else. Even with Romney’s uptick in national polls, his path remains virtually nonexistent without Ohio. He could win Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada and still lose without the Buckeye State. If anything, his bounce has pushed him to redouble his efforts within the existing map rather than thinking about expanding it.
For Romney, any number above 8 percent proved he was right and Obama was wrong.
Obama had promised, Romney told audiences repeatedly, never to let unemployment get that high. Instead, Romney said, the jobless rate blew past 8 percent and got stuck there.
The 0.3 percent dip in unemployment in September, from 8.1 to 7.8 percent, deprived Romney of one of his central campaign themes.
It was enough to put him on the defensive just as he was basking in the afterglow of his debate performance Wednesday, the best moment of his campaign against Obama so far. It wasn’t because the figures showed a healthy economy — they didn’t — but because the economy had crossed a threshold that Romney had implied it would never cross without him.
“We can do better,” Romney said Friday at a rally in the Virginia coal-country town of Abingdon. It was the same argument he has used throughout the campaign, but without the number he’d always used to hammer it home. “There were fewer new jobs created this month than last month. And the unemployment rate . . . has come down very, very slowly, but it’s come down nonetheless.”
The political importance of the 8 percent threshold was driven home, in a backhanded way, by a few conservatives who floated a conspiracy theory that Friday’s dip had been engineered to give Obama a boost.
Former General Electric chief executive Jack Welch wrote on Twitter: “these Chicago guys will do anything. can’t debate so change numbers.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the data were worked out the same way as always, with no interference. And Welch later conceded that he had no evidence of a conspiracy.
There is no special economic magic to 8 percent. A truly healthy economy, experts say, would have a rate far lower.
“Eight is bad, 7.9 is bad, 8.1 is bad,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and an adviser to GOP nominee John McCain in 2008. “We want to be at six.”
But the figure assumed its political significance in early 2009, before Obama had taken office, in a report written by a pair of his advisers, Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein. That report projected, with caveats, that if Congress passed a large stimulus package, unemployment would peak at 8 percent.
The stimulus passed. But the rate kept going up.
It reached 10 percent in October 2009 and then fell only slowly, despite the billions pouring in from the government. Before last month, the rate had hovered between 8.3 and 8.1 percent. Obama’s advisers later said they had not understood the depth of the country’s economic troubles when they made their projection.
But the wealth intended to liberate Romney the politician instead has ensnared him. He hoped it would free him; for many voters, it now seems to define him.
Democrats have relentlessly cast him as a corporate raider and out-of-touch plutocrat. And Romney, after more than a year running for president, has made one comment after another that inadvertently reinforces those characterizations.
“Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” a high-dollar donor asked Romney at the private fundraiser that was secretly recorded and leaked this month. “To me, you should be so proud of your wealth. That’s what we all aspire to be. . . . Why not stick up for yourself and say, ‘Why is it bad to be, to aspire to be wealthy and successful?’ ”
Romney paused and launched into a two-minute description of what he tries to get across on the stump, “the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer — they make us better off.” But he never answered the question.
His oldest son, Tagg, offered one explanation for his father’s reticence in an interview Friday. “He was taught that when you do good things, you don’t brag about them.”
Three days before the first presidential debate, seen by some as Romney’s best or even last chance to sell himself, the persistent focus on his riches has taken a deep toll on his image, a battery of recent polls suggest.
By 2 to 1, registered voters in a late August Washington Post-ABC News poll said that Romney would do more to help the wealthy than the middle class. The numbers were flipped for President Obama, with more than twice as many voters saying he would prioritize the middle class over the wealthy. In another measure of trust, registered voters in Ohio, Florida and Virginia gave Obama double-digit margins over Romney when asked which candidate understood the economic problems that Americans are facing, according to Post polls this month.
Money, culture entangled
Americans have elected many rich elites as president, starting with George Washington. But Romney’s wealth, estimated to be between $ 190 million and $ 250 million, is inextricably bound up with two cultures that are mysterious and misunderstood by many people: high finance and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He also has a complicated relationship with his own money, which he has been unwilling or unable to explain to the public. One day he says he won’t apologize for his success; another day he jokes before a roomful of donors that he’s “poor as a church mouse.”
In one year, he and his wife, Ann, gave away far more money — $ 4.2 million — than most Americans will earn in a lifetime, according to the 2011 tax return he filed two weeks ago. But he has resisted calls to release more tax returns, citing a wish to keep his charitable contributions private as one reason. “It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church,” he told Parade magazine.
Romney has declined to reveal some crucial details about his tax plan. If he did, Romney’s campaign has said, it would be harder to get Congress to go along with them later. “We want to get it done,” said his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Obama is equally vague about his second-term plans. Obama sometimes sketches his agenda as a list of questions, which hestill needs to answer. “How [can] we continue to build an economy that works for middle-class families?” he said last week in Tampa, reeling off five questions for himself.
It is still possible to make a few educated guesses about how Romney or Obama might change everyday life in the next four years. But only a few. In recent polls, 49 percent of voters said they wanted more details from Obama, and 63 percent wanted the same from Romney.
In an interview broadcast Sunday night on “60 Minutes,” Romney faced questions from CBS’s Scott Pelley about his refusal to divulge more details of his tax plan.
“The devil’s in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs,” Romney said.
“You have heard the criticism, I’m sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things. And I wonder if this isn’t precisely one of those things?” Pelley said.
Romney said, in essence, that vagueness is necessary sometimes. “You don’t hand [lawmakers] a complete document and say, ‘Here, take this or leave it.’ Look, leadership is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing,” he said.
The vagueness at the heart of this campaign seems a reaction to its overall gloomy circumstances. The economy is lagging, the capital is gridlocked, and the country is grappling with a growing debt. All the proposed long-term solutions — cutting spending, increasing tax revenue — are likely to make a huge block of people mad.
The campaigns may have calculated that it’s better to let people wonder about their intentions rather than release details and confirm those worries.
“In a sense, they’re afraid to come up with solutions. Because any solutions will anger voters,” said Robert N. Roberts, a professor at James Madison University who has written an encyclopedia of presidential slogans and promises.
“The campaigns really have no choice,” Roberts said, but to say, “ ‘You may not like me, but the other guy is worse.’ ”
For anyone trying to forecast the impact of November’s election, the best place to start is health care. That’s because there’s already a law on the books — the 2010 health-care overhaul — that will bring noticeable changes in the next term.
Romney brushed aside questions about the state of his campaign in an interview scheduled to air Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Asked by anchor Scott Pelley how he planned to turn around his campaign, Romney responded: “Well, it doesn’t need a turnaround. We’ve got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president [of] the United States.”
But the sensibility in Boston is also decidedly realistic. Some Romney advisers acknowledge that the burden is on the candidate and those around him to quiet doubters inside their own party and elsewhere, and to demonstrate that they have a compelling message, along with a strategy and the discipline to execute it.
The coming week will test whether Romney’s campaign can do something they’ve struggled with for many weeks, which is to deliver a coherent and sustained message across every possible platform — in their paid advertising, in what the candidate and his running mate, Paul Ryan, say on the campaign trail, in the digital world that now helps shape the conversation, and through the many surrogates used to spread and amplify that message.
Then comes the next test, which is the first of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Advisers to both candidates see the Oct. 3 debate in Denver as the best opportunity for Romney to force a shift in the campaign’s dynamic, which has been running against the GOP nominee for the past three weeks.
Romney advisers now interpret the state of the race from two somewhat contradictory perspectives. On the one hand, they see national tracking polls that a week ago showed Obama in the lead immediately after his convention but that tightened dramatically after that. Other national polls give Obama a lead.
The other view of the race comes from recent polls in the battleground states that consistently show Romney running behind. Especially troubling are Obama’s narrow leads in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, all vital to Romney’s chances of winning. If presidential campaigns are really a series of state-by-state contests, Romney’s path to 270 electoral votes is far more problematic than Obama’s at this moment.
But Romney advisers see a rush to judgment about the state of the campaign by pundits and commentators, and they dismiss suggestions that the campaign has taken a decisive turn. That view is shared in Chicago among Obama’s top advisers, who believe they are in a stronger position than Romney but who expect the race to be close and hard-fought until November.
The clip is only the latest from Romney’s $ 50,000-a-plate fundraiser on May 17 in Boca Raton, Fla., now buffeting his campaign 49 days from Election Day.
On Monday, Mother Jones released grainy videos in which Romney dismisses President Obama’s supporters as “victims” who take no responsibility for their livelihoods and who think they are entitled to government handouts. He said that his job “is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Mother Jones released the full video.
Romney and his campaign urgently tried to diffuse the controversy Monday night, hastily arranging a news conference in Costa Mesa, Calif. The nominee stood by the remarks, although he conceded that they were “not elegantly stated” and that he had been “speaking off the cuff in response to a question.”
Aboard the campaign plane to Salt Lake City, adviser Kevin Madden said Romney was “very focused and determined” to shift the campaign focus to his core economic message.
“I still think this is an election that is focused on the economy, that’s focused on the direction of the country, and I think the voters right now who have yet to make up their mind are still viewing it through the lens of that,” Madden told reporters.
Asked whether Romney was “winning” at this stage, Madden said only that “it’s a very close, hard-fought campaign, and I think it will be all the day to Election Day.”
Romney is holding no public campaign events on Tuesday, but he could address his comments about the Israelis and Palestinians at his fundraisers in Salt Lake City and Dallas, which will be open to reporters. And aides added to his campaign schedule an interview on Fox News Channel, where he again talked about the “47 percent” remark.
“We were, of course, talking about a campaign and how he’s going to get close to half the vote, I’m going to get half the vote, approximately, I hope. I want to get 50.1 percent or more,” Romney said on “Your World with Neil Cavuto.”
“Frankly, we have two very different views of America. The president’s view is one of a larger government…I believe the right course for America is one where government steps in to help those that are in need – we’re a compassionate people – but then we let people build their own lives, create enterprises.”
Although Romney has spoken skeptically in the past about the prospect for a so-called two-state solution, he has not used the kind of language on the campaign trail that he used in the closed-door fundraiser.
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