With a little more than two weeks left until judgment day, Barack Obama's campaign is embracing a fundamentally defensive strategy centered on winning Ohio at all costs -- while unleashing a new barrage of blistering attacks against Mitt Romney aimed at mobilizing a less-than-fired-up Democratic base.
A surging Romney is suddenly playing offense all over the map, and the upward movement since the Denver debate gives him the luxury of striking what his advisers -- and more than a few Democrats -- think is a more positive, presidential, "Morning in America" tone.
In contrast to the grind-it-out Obama strategy, Romneyland's working theory is that the momentum shift since Denver is a late-breaking, decisive wave that gives them the chance to not just win but win big.
But if Obama is currently on the ugly end of Big Mo, Romney finds himself hobbled by previous mistakes, namely a failure to develop competitive ground operations -- or even a baseline of competitive advertising -- in potential battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which are becoming more competitive.
Both campaigns are confident they can win. But their theory-of-the-case victory strategies couldn't be more different. A buoyant Team Romney sees itself driving into Obama territory on a tailwind of enthusiasm. Team Obama is relying on a three-state solution -- winning Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada puts him over the top -- and more "Hit Mitt" messaging geared at driving Democrats to the polls, a hybrid of hope and the hammer.
Obama's people think he will pull it out. Romney's aides see the possibility of a romp.
"We're going to win," said one of the former Massachusetts governor's closest advisers. "Seriously, 305 electoral votes."
A top Obama strategist counters: "We've regained our footing since Denver. ... We've always been focused on a pretty narrow band of territory. We've always had the map on our side. So, ultimately, this comes down to Ohio plus two or three states. We're going to win."
Obama's Chicago brain trust pooh-poohs national public polling as a light-and-heat sideshow, less relevant than swing-state polling.
But Sunday's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll lays out the potholes on their narrowing path in the clearest possible terms. Obama and Romney are deadlocked at 47 percent among likely voters -- while the president, struggling to ignite enthusiasm around his stay-the-course message, enjoys a 49-to-44 percent edge among registered voters. That means some of the people who would vote for Obama simply don't plan to expend the energy to visit the polls -- which explains Obama's "Don't boo, vote!" directive to his audiences these days.
If Obama can't close that gap by mobilizing his base of black, Latino, young and highly educated voters, he's toast -- and Chicago knows it.
The same holds true with women voters, who favor Obama by about 8 percent, a narrower margin than at any point in the cycle and far below the 13 percent margin of victory among women he won four years ago against John McCain.
Both camps are blanketing the airwaves with happy talk about their chances, but behind the scenes the electoral realities of the last month are sinking in.
The Obama team knows full well North Carolina is slipping away -- and Republicans noted with some interest that Obama didn't include any Tar Heel State stops on his multistate swing after Monday night's debate in Florida. The Sunshine State is leaning Romney, and Virginia, which Obama is strongly contesting, could easily swing red.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel conceded that North Carolina is likely to go red. "I kind of describe this as six turbocharged gubernatorial races -- one in Ohio, one in Florida and then you've got Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia," the Chicago mayor said.
If Romney officials are increasingly confident about Florida and Virginia, they are more bullish on Iowa than Wisconsin -- which has emerged as a must-win if Obama holds on in Ohio. And they are more optimistic about Colorado than Nevada, which Obama aides now flat-out predict will be an Obama win.
Romney isn't abandoning Nevada yet, though, and will visit the state this week on a western trek.
Conversations of late with Romney officials that begin with discussions of Florida or Ohio quickly move to raised-eyebrow, "did-ya-see" mentions of polls in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and even Oregon, where Obama leads by high double digits.
But for all the talk about Pennsylvania being in play, Romney has spent little time and no cash there. Paul Ryan did hold a rally outside Pittsburgh over the weekend, but it was at the hangar he flew into, and some of the coverage will soak into northeastern Ohio.
Romney also is not airing TV ads in Michigan or Pennsylvania, where the population hubs are around expensive markets. The same had also been true in New Hampshire, where polls show Romney closing in. The former Massachusetts governor didn't begin airing ads on pricey Boston TV until Friday and still hasn't visited the Granite State since early September.
Obama aides scoff at audacious predictions about the expanded map -- and have begun to break their own rules to make their case, leaking data showing them far ahead of public polls that portray Pennsylvania as tightening to within the margin of error. Moreover, Obama's big labor allies in Wisconsin are fighting like their lives depend on it, and the president tried to shore up New Hampshire's four electoral votes by visiting there last week.
To many on Obama's side, the battle shaping up is reminiscent of spring 2008, when Hillary Clinton's growing late-in-the-game momentum was, eventually, stopped cold by the electoral math and Obama's superior organization in critical states.
Obama has thus far resisted calls to offer a specific bullet-point plan for his second term, but he has begun to mix a what-I-will-do message into his standard Romney-bashing on the stump. Lately, he's been casting Romney's "47 percent" comment as the rationale for a second-term agenda that will focus on increasing fairness in the Tax Code, overhauling immigration and reviving the push for his moribund jobs bill.
"I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considers themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility -- think about who he was talking about: folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives, veterans who've sacrificed for this country, students who are out there trying to, hopefully, advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams. ... I want to fight for them," Obama concluded at last Tuesday's face-off at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Democratic operatives familiar with internal swing-state polling and focus group studies tell POLITICO that the president's miserable performance at the Oct. 3 debate in Denver led to a pro-Romney "environmental shift" that only began to abate late last week -- a day or more after Obama's much stronger performance at the second debate.
Undecided voters "go back and forth every day," said a top Democratic pollster who has been active in battleground states. "One day they are for Romney, and one day they are for the president. Right now they have gone back to Obama. The last thing they hear matters. ... It's extremely fluid outside the base."
Nowhere is that situation more true than in all-important Ohio, where Obama clings to a 3-point margin heading into the third debate, according to a Democratic operative familiar with internal polling last week.
To Boston, it's all about keeping the spirit of Denver alive.
"My gut is that it's likely to be decisive," said one of Romney's top advisers. This adviser said of the Obama firewall strategy: "They're not locking us out of anywhere. If anything, the field is expanding."
One Romney official said that while they may make a late push in some states they've not visited, he'll still spend most of his time in the handful of battlegrounds that both nominees are fiercely contesting and spending millions on TV ads there. Of those, Ohio will get the most time of all.
"He'll be a lot of places but in Ohio more than anywhere," the official said.
Ohio is as central to Romney's hopes as it is for Obama. If they can lock up Florida and Virginia, pulling out a victory in the Buckeye State would all but seal the race, Romney officials say.
"If we can win Ohio and then just one of theirs, it's game over," said a Romney official, alluding to the other 2008 Obama states besides the big three that are in play.
The rising optimism in the Romney camp is palpable.
"We're running like this is going to be a dogfight, but there's a sense that what happened in the last two weeks has really opened up the field for us," a Romney aide said.
Asked if this election could resemble the historically close 2000 contest, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu offered a flat "no."
"I think by Election Night [Romney] is close to 300," Sununu said.
"I'd say he has a lead," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said. "I think that's a permanent, sustainable dynamic."
The first debate, said McDonnell, prompted "a sea change."
In the minds of many Romneyites, Denver didn't just give them a bump -- it permanently blunted the effectiveness of the Obama campaign's effort to caricature the Republican as a heartless plutocrat.
"The majority of Americans don't want to vote for Barack Obama," Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said. "But I think that had the Obama campaign chosen to present a positive new agenda they might have had a shot. Instead, they embarked on this 'Kill Romney' campaign which has completely imploded around them as I think Romney's favorables are as high as President Obama's now."
But Obama's campaign has a narrower approach they believe is better suited to their contracting path.
A year ago, during the GOP primary dogfight, several of the president's top political advisers told POLITICO the Republican they feared most in Ohio wasn't Romney, but Rick Perry, who had a much better stump style with working-class white voters. Those Romney weaknesses are still there, despite Denver, they reason.
The one approach both campaigns will embrace, not surprisingly, is negativity.
Romney's campaign feels that their candidate is presenting a more optimistic, Reaganesque image -- but you wouldn't know that from his ads, which sell the idea that Obama's once grand ambitions have failed in a sea of broken promises and trillion-dollar deficits.
Obama's negativity is more targeted -- an increasingly acidic messaging operation geared at raising anti-Romney feeling in the base and seeding skepticism among swing voters, especially women.
Hence the most recent Obama ad in Ohio, one that hits Romney for his opposition to the auto bailout and concludes with "he's not one of us."
Pundits, more than a few of them sympathetic to the Obama cause, have criticized the hit as too mean. But Chicago will deliver more of the same over the next 15 days, albeit with Obama himself taking a higher road.
"Because," said one Democratic pollster allied with the Obama campaign, "it works."
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