WASHINGTON – (AP) President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney embarked Saturday on the final stretch of their long, grinding presidential campaign, making their closing arguments in the handful of battleground states that will decide the outcome of a tight race going down to the wire.
National opinion polls showed a race for the popular vote in tomorrow’s election so close that only a statistically insignificant point or two separated the two rivals. Polls in the nine battleground states tightened after Obama's poor performance in the first presidential debate, on Oct. 3, and the race has stayed close since then.
Under the U.S. system, the winner is not determined by the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests, making “battleground'' states that are neither consistently Republican nor Democratic extremely important in such a tight race. Romney and Obama are actually competing to win at least 270 electoral votes. The electoral votes are apportioned to states based on a mix of population and representation in Congress.
Republicans quietly acknowledged that Romney had so far been unable to achieve the breakthroughs needed in such key swing states as Ohio, where polls show the Republican trailing by several percentage points. No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.
That leaves Romney with the tougher path to reach the required 270 electoral votes. He must win more of the nine most-contested states that are not reliably Republican or Democratic: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.
About 27 million Americans already have cast ballots in early voting in 34 states and Washington, D.C.
Obama tended to presidential business before leaving Washington Saturday as he led a briefing at the government's disaster relief agency on the federal response to Superstorm Sandy. He said the recovery effort still has a long way to go but pledged a “120 percent effort'' by all those involved.
“There's nothing more important than us getting this right,'' Obama said, keenly aware that a spot-on government response to the storm also was important to his political prospects. Then he began a three-state campaign day.
After holding mostly small and mid-size rallies for much of the campaign, Obama's team is planning a series of larger events this weekend aimed at drawing big crowds in battleground states. Still, the campaign isn't expecting to draw the massive audiences Obama had in the closing days of the 2008 race, when his rallies drew more than 50,000.
Obama's closing weekend also includes two joint events with former President Bill Clinton: a rally Saturday night in Virginia and an event Sunday in New Hampshire.
Romney began Saturday with a morning rally on the New Hampshire seacoast. He then headed to Iowa and planned two stops in Colorado later in the day. He shifted an original plan to campaign in Nevada on Sunday in favor of a schedule likely to bring him back to Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. His running mate Rep. Paul Ryan hit Ohio and Pennsylvania before heading to two more swing states.
Obama spent Saturday in Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Dubuque, Iowa, and ended the day in Bristow, Virginia. On Sunday, he was taking his campaign to New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado and Ohio. Vice President Joe Biden spent Saturday in Colorado
In New Hampshire, Romney faulted Obama for telling supporters a day earlier that voting would be their “best revenge''
“Vote for `revenge?''' the Republican candidate asked, oozing incredulity. “Let me tell you what I'd like to tell you: Vote for love of country. It is time we lead America to a better place.''
The Republican nominee sounded the same message in Iowa and released a TV ad carrying the same message.
Obama campaign spokesman Jennifer Psaki said the president's revenge comment was nothing more than a reminder that if voters think Romney's policies are “a bad deal for the middle class, then you have power, you can go to the voting booth and cast your ballot.''
Obama, campaigning in Ohio, countered with a final reminder that Tuesday's election is “not just a choice between two candidates or two parties, it's a choice between two different visions for America.'' The president offered himself as the candidate voters can trust, renewing his criticism of Romney for what he said were misleading ads suggesting that automakers were shifting U.S. jobs to China.
“You want to know that your president means what he says and says what he means,'' Obama told a 4,000-person crowd in northeast Ohio. “And after four years as president, you know me.''
With Obama maintaining a slight lead in Ohio, the Romney campaign sought to make a last-minute play for Pennsylvania, a state that has traditionally voted Democratic. The Democratic candidate has won Pennsylvania in the last five presidential contests.
Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 10 percentage points in 2008; the latest polls in the state give him a 4 to 5-point margin. Romney will campaign in the Philadelphia suburbs on Sunday in what Republicans cast as a sign of strength. Democrats describe the move as an act of desperation, but the Obama campaign is carefully adding television spending in the state and are sending Clinton to campaign there Monday.
The final frenzy of campaigning comes in the wake of Superstorm Sandy that has dominated much of the news coverage for the past several days as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut recover from the brunt of its force.
Friday offered an economic finale to the campaign with the release of October jobs reports that contained better than average economic news but gave both campaigns a talking point. Employers added a better-than-expected 171,000 jobs last month, but the jobless rate ticked up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent – mainly because more people jumped back into the search for work.
The economy has trumped all other issues in a campaign carried out in the shadow of slow growth, high unemployment and huge federal deficits. Obama will face voters with the highest unemployment rate of any incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
While Friday's jobs report was unlikely to affect the election outcome, it brought the economy back into the national conversation in a country still preoccupied with the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy on the U.S. East Coast.
After months of attack ads, the Obama and Romney campaigns both closed out their campaigns with some upbeat new messages while their allied independent groups continued on a largely negative note.
Obama's campaign was airing a 1-minute ad, “Determination,'' in all the major battleground states. Obama ticks through his plans to boost manufacturing, invest in education and job training, and bring down the deficit in part by asking wealthy people to “pay a little bit more.''
Romney's campaign was running an ad across the battleground states titled “Clear Path,'' which pulled clips from the third presidential debate where Romney laid out how his presidency would differ from Obama's.
In crucial early voting, Obama holds an apparent lead over Romney in several key states. But Obama's advantage isn't as big as the one he had over John McCain four years ago, giving Romney hope that he could make up that gap in Tuesday's election.
No votes will be counted until Election Day, but several battleground states are releasing the party affiliation of people who have voted early. So far, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. Republicans have the edge in Colorado.
On the last day of early voting in Florida, voters at some sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were waiting up to four hours to cast ballots. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson asked his state's Republican governor to extend early voting at least through Sunday, citing “an untold number of voters being turned away or becoming too discouraged to vote.''