But while Ohio was emerging as the most contested state in the final push, Romney and the Republican Party were launching a new drive into Pennsylvania, a state that had been considered safely in Obama's column. Romney planned to campaign in the state Sunday and the Republican National Committee was putting $3 million in ads into the state.
Romney aides said they detected that Obama was underperforming in the southeastern counties around Philadelphia, a usual Democratic stronghold, and in the working-class area in and around Scranton. Obama won the state handily in 2008, largely on the strength of his performance in the eastern part of the state. The RNC, however, says its voter outreach program has already exceeded its performance four years ago, with three times more phone calls and 19 more door knocks than at this time in 2008.
Obama aides dismissed the eleventh-hour move as an act of desperation that underscored Romney's weakness in other battlegrounds but said the Democratic campaign would increase its ad purchases in the state to respond to the RNC incursion.
"It means the Romney-Ryan campaign is desperate to try to figure out how to win this race outside of the states that they've been contesting it in for 15 months," Gibbs said. "Look, John McCain spent the last weekend in 2008 in Pennsylvania in a desperate attempt to do this as well."
Romney's campaign on Friday released a memo claiming likely victory in Iowa. "The thrill is gone. And in Iowa, the Obama firewall is burning," strategist David Kochel wrote.
Kochel pointed to newspaper endorsements - particularly from the Des Moines Register, which had backed Democrats for 40 years until recently endorsing Romney - and to early vote totals. Romney's campaign insists Democratic early voting leads are small enough that Republicans will be able to overcome them on Election Day.
Obama planned to take Romney on directly in Ohio on Friday over the Republican's ads on the auto industry bailout, campaign aides said. The ads accuse Obama of taking General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy, selling Chrysler to an Italian company and building Jeeps in China. Chrysler and GM have protested the ads and disputed the suggestion that Jeep construction was being transferred overseas.
Vice President Joe Biden has reacted sharply to the ads, calling them "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my political career." But Obama has yet to weigh in directly, in part because much of his week was dominated by managing the federal response to Superstorm Sandy.
Amid all the signs of escalation, there were also signs that Election Day was nigh.
Outside the White House, workers were erecting fencing on Pennsylvania Avenue, setting the groundwork for building the inaugural viewing stand and the camera platform in nearby Lafayette Park.