An ad from the Mitt Romney campaign calls attention to federal debt. (HANDOUT, MCT )
MAYFIELD VILLAGE, Ohio — While most of the nation watches from a distance, President Obama and Mitt Romney are running a climactic wave of TV ads making final arguments to voters in nine battleground states that illustrate each side's calculations on how to tip the election.
The campaign ads reflect the tension between Obama's attempt to maximize his edge among key demographic groups, especially women, and Romney's hope that public dissatisfaction with the economy will override all else.
At the same time, both Obama and Romney are targeting their closing ads with regional appeals. Singled out for special attention are seniors in Florida, blue-collar workers in Ohio and suburban women in Virginia.
INTERACTIVE: Watch the ads, track the spending
In back-to-back ads dominating commercial breaks at all hours of day and night, each candidate has distilled his overall case to a few core points.
One of Romney's most heavily run ads shows him attacking Obama's economic record at their first debate, while the president, appearing dejected, looks down at his notes.
"I'm not going to raise taxes on anyone," Romney tells Obama forcefully. "My plan is to bring down rates to get more people working. My priority is putting people back to work in America."
Obama's latest ads highlight signs of an economic rebound, also portraying his Republican challenger as a rich financier who is out of touch with the middle class.
One widely aired Obama spot shows Romney on his campaign jet as "60 Minutes" anchor Scott Pelley asks whether it's fair that he paid a 14% federal tax rate on $20 million last year when "the guy who makes $50,000" paid a higher rate. "Yeah, I think it's the right way to encourage economic growth," Romney responds.
Apart from the clash on the economy, the most striking aspect of the campaign's peak advertising is the prominence of women. New Obama ads feature women saying Romney would jeopardize access to birth control and abortion.
At the same time, American Crossroads, a "super PAC" backing Romney, is running an ad showing a woman at a kitchen table criticizing Obama on spending, debt and jobs. "My family can't afford another four years like this," she says.
For TV viewers in Denver, Green Bay and scores of other swing-state locales, the repetition can be mind-numbing.
"You'll see an Obama ad followed by a Romney ad followed by an Obama ad followed by a Romney ad," said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Reno. "I think it loses its effect."
All told, the campaigns and their allies are projected to spend $1.3 billion on TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, a firm that tracks political advertising.
Beyond the ads, Obama and Romney are trying to pick up votes through news coverage of their frequent visits to battleground states, along with their widely seen debates. Their first debate, in Denver, drew 67 million viewers, and their second, on Long Island, 66 million, according to Nielsen. Their last debate will take place Monday in Boca Raton, Fla.
Also in the mix are radio ads, mail, automated phone calls and volunteer stops at voters' homes.
But TV ads are still the most effective way to sway the most voters, so that's where the big spending is. Last week alone, Obama, Romney and their campaign allies spent $59 million on TV advertising, according to a Republican ad tracking source.
Both campaigns are tailoring messages to the audience. In the Virginia suburbs of Washington last week, Romney was airing an ad rebutting the Obama spots aimed at women. "Turns out Romney doesn't oppose contraception at all," a woman in the Romney ad says. "In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life."
Lest he turn off more culturally conservative voters, Romney is not airing that ad in Virginia's rural and coal mining regions. He promised to support abortion rights in his Massachusetts campaigns for U.S. Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002, but has run for president opposing most abortions.
In Florida, Obama was making a play for the elderly last week with an ad aired during "Good Day Orlando." It attacks Romney on Social Security and Medicare and shows Obama sitting at a cafe table with worried-looking seniors. "We're not going to turn Medicare into a voucher," Obama says. "This is all part of keeping a commitment, a pledge, to your generation, but also to future generations."
In Des Moines, Romney was airing an ad blaming Obama for the rise in national debt. "He's not just wasting money," an announcer says. "He's borrowing it and then wasting it."
Tim Albrecht, a Republican strategist based in Iowa, said the ad fit the farm state's character: "Iowans hate debt."
On cable, Obama's campaign has been more sophisticated than Romney's about placing ads to reach tightly defined groups, said Tim Kay, political strategy director at NCC Media, which buys cable ad time for both campaigns.