Down to the Wire

Presidential Candidates Blitz Swing States on Final Campaign Weekend

As Obama clings to a lead, Romney aides unload on Christie. Howard Kurtz on the frenetic final weekend.

One month after some commentators concluded he had forfeited the presidency with a sleepwalking debate performance, Barack Obama is ahead in nearly all swing states as the campaign careens through its final weekend.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has the president leading 51 to 45 percent in Ohio, leaving Mitt Romney facing the prospect of trying to assemble an electoral majority without a state that has always been crucial for Republicans. The same poll has Obama clinging to a two-point edge in Florida.

In Colorado, Virginia, Iowa, and New Hampshire, seven polls give Obama a lead and two have him tied. None show Romney ahead. And Sunday’s final Des Moines Register poll says Obama is leading in Iowa, 47 to 42 percent.

Of course, polls can be wrong, and undecided voters may break against an incumbent in the last three days of a campaign. And with both sides spending millions of dollars on their ground game, turnout on Tuesday could tip the balance in closely contested states.

The Obama camp seemed confident, so much so that David Axelrod even made a cheeky sexual reference. “He believes in what he’s doing, he believes in what he’s fighting for—you can see in the speech that he’s delivering that this is coming from his loins,” the senior strategist said in Ohio.

No such bravado from Romney aides, but some of them are dissing Chris Christie in what appears to be the sign of a frustrated campaign. Romney allies told Politico, anonymously of course, that the New Jersey governor had been Romney’s first choice for VP before he changed his mind and picked Paul Ryan. They were peeved over Christie’s warm embrace of Obama as they toured hurricane damage in the state, which one Romney partisan called “over the top.” The timing of the leak is no coincidence.

More than 70 percent of voters approve of the president’s handling of Hurricane Sandy, which upended the final week of the campaign and, at the least, seems to have halted Romney’s momentum.

Even Rupert Murdoch, who has criticized Romney in the past, sounds defensive about his chances. “Monolithic media will spend next three days pushing Obama, but final outcome far from certain. Early voting patterns look very different,” he tweeted.

On that point, the president’s campaign made an enormous investment in early voting. But it’s not clear whether that has expanded Obama’s base or merely turned out supporters who would have showed up anyway on Nov. 6. From the NBC/WSJ poll: “In Ohio, 35 percent say they have already voted or plan to do so, and Obama is leading them, 62 percent to 36 percent. Yet Romney is up among Election Day voters in the Buckeye State, 52 percent to 42 percent.”

On a conference call Saturday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said his team had built “a ground game unlike what anyone in American politics has ever seen” and had “blown away our most optimistic expectations.” Messina also issued a memo saying, for instance, that nearly 138,000 people registered by the Obama side had voted early in North Carolina—meaning, they say, that Romney would have to win 65 percent of the remaining vote to carry the state. Apparently spinning the press in these final days remains a paramount goal.

On the trail, both candidates have moved to thematic closing arguments rather than launching new broadsides. Romney, sounding like a classic challenger, is telling voters they can do better. “I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it,” he says. He’s also reciting his business background, including Bain Capital, in a way he has played down before.

Obama, in traditional incumbent fashion, is casting his opponent as a risky bet—an argument that taps into Romney’s migration to the middle in recent weeks. “When you elect a president, you don’t know what kind of emergencies may happen, you don’t know what problems he or she may deal with,” Obama says. “But you do want to be able to trust your president.”

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The frenetic criss-crossing of the country reflects the inexorable math of the Electoral College. The race is still tight enough that some pundits are coming up with scenarios in which Obama wins the election while losing the popular vote, à la George W. Bush, or a 269-269 tie that throws the decision to the House, which would then anoint Romney.

If Romney loses Ohio—and no Republican has won the White House without it—he would have to take Florida and Virginia, plus some combination of states from Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

Romney hit Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado on Saturday, while Obama was on a four-state swing: Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Virginia.

Romney has added a last-minute stop in Pennsylvania on Sunday, meaning either that he still thinks he has a shot there or is flailing for a winning combination after falling behind elsewhere.

The campaigns are trying everything—which is why Bruce Springsteen is joining Obama rallies—but the cake is close to baked at this point. We should know the outcome Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. Unless, of course, there’s a recount.