With less than a month until Election Day, the primary battlefields for the presidential campaign can be found in just three states: Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
In these big three, home to a combined 60 electoral votes, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are spending both the most money and the most time. Over the past two weeks, the candidates and their allies have aired the most TV ads in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, in that order. And over the same period, Obama and Romney have held more than three times as many campaign events in the Big Three than they have in the other six swing states combined.
The logic behind the candidates homing in on the trio is simple: The way Republicans see it, Romney will have a much steeper climb winning the presidency without taking back all three from the Democratic column. And in the eyes of Obama's team, they can all but ensure a second term if they win just one of the battlegrounds.
"There are nine states where the campaign is happening, but these are the three where, in all caps, it's really happening," said Republican strategist Bruce Haynes.
Obama's high command is convinced that without a sweep of Virginia, Florida and Ohio, Romney can't make up the difference further west to reach the needed 270 electoral votes.
"Romney needs an inside straight, he has to have all three," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
A second senior Obama official, looking at swing-state leads turning into swing-state ties since the first debate, said the electoral ramifications of the trio "is something that gives me a certain level of optimism."
"One guy has to pitch a perfect game and then still win elsewhere, and the other just needs one of them plus some combination of other states -- or gets two [of the big three] and it's over."
That's to say that, assuming Romney carries North Carolina and loses New Hampshire, even if he sweeps the big three he'd still need to capture another Obama 2008 state to get to 270. And, conversely, Obama could take just one of the top trio and still likely win reelection if he's able to hang on in Wisconsin and one of the three remaining battlegrounds: Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
But Romney officials, while acknowledging that the Big Three are important, believe that they can still win if they lose one of them. And the good news for Romney is that it increasingly appears that Florida, the biggest of the three, is moving their way.
Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, noted that a combination of North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, New Hampshire and Florida would get them to 273 electoral votes. "And that doesn't even include Wisconsin," said Beeson, referring to the newest swing state to come on the board.
But it's clear that Republicans would rather not have to run such a gantlet, where winning only two of the big three would create such little margin for error.
"There's a way to do it by winning other swing states and still not winning all three but it makes just the math harder," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Romney's debate prep partner and a decades-long veteran of Ohio's political wars.
For months, many senior Republicans, including American Crossroads co-founder Karl Rove, have believed that a Romney win is predicated on a "3-2-1" strategy -- a calculation based on flipping five Obama 2008 states. Assumed in this formulation is winning Virginia, one of the three traditionally Republican states the president captured four years ago, and retaking Ohio and Florida, the two consummate White House battlegrounds.
And while Boston argues that it can eke out a win without Ohio's 18 electoral votes, GOP decisions on where to spend cash speak to its determination to avoid such an eventuality.
In the past two weeks, Romney and his Republican allies aired 12,250 ads in the Buckeye State -- even more than they ran in sprawling Florida, according to a media-tracking source.
The next two states where Romney and his third-party groups aired the most ads: Florida and Virginia, respectively.
This is partly because of the size of the big three states compared to the other six battlegrounds -- Ohio, Virginia and Florida simply have more TV markets -- but an analysis of the GOP buys in individual cities makes clear that it is purchasing more time in Big Three markets than anywhere else.
Romney and outside Republican groups had more than 5,000 gross rating points on the air in each of Ohio's five largest markets and in Richmond, Va., in the past two weeks. The campaign and independent-expenditure outfits didn't have a combined 5,000 gross rating points in any other city in the country during the same period.
Romney's attention to the Big Three has been on the ground as well as in the air.
Over the past two weeks, he's held 15 events in Ohio, Florida and Virginia. In that same time period, he's held three events in the other six swing states. In Ohio alone, Romney has held seven events over the past two weeks.
Obama, too, has increasingly focused on the Big Three.
Indeed, even given the gigantic size of the footprint Romney has had in Ohio, for example, the Republican has been playing catch-up there on TV ad spending.
"They had been outspending us big-time in Ohio," said Portman. "Now for first time we're at parity and are able to counter the negative images [of Romney] that have been flooding the airwaves in Ohio."
Obama and his allies have been airing more ads in the Big Three than anywhere else. Consider: In Cleveland, Obama and Democratic outside groups have run 2,717 spots in the past two weeks. In Washington, D.C., they've broadcast 2,789 ads during the same time period. By comparison, they've aired 1,653 ads in Des Moines, Iowa, and just 829 in Raleigh, N.C.
"Places like Ohio and Virginia, I think, have seen as much if not more attention than almost anywhere else," observed Obama adviser Robert Gibbs.
As NBC's First Read noted, four of the top five most heavily advertised markets last week in terms of gross ratings points purchased by both campaigns and their primary SuperPACs were in the Big Three states (Denver was the fifth).
Obama's schedule has also increasingly been focused on Ohio, Virginia and Florida.
In the past two weeks, he's held four events in the Big Three, spending much of the other time raising money and conducting presidential business. And, ahead of Tuesday's debate at Hofstra University, he's sequestered himself in Williamsburg, Va., for the past few days.
The president hasn't had a campaign event outside a Big Three state since he stopped in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 4, the day after the first debate in Denver.
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