With the presidential debates over, Mitt Romney returns to the campaign… (David Goldman, Associated…)
BOCA RATON, Fla. — With the debates behind them, President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney launched themselves Tuesday into a final sprint across the half a dozen or so states that will probably decide which of the two claims the White House on Nov. 6.
Obama released a glossy booklet offering his plans for a second term, which he touted in a TV ad claiming progress after four years of middling economic growth. "It's an honor to be your president," Obama said, looking evenly into the camera, "and I'm asking for your vote."
Romney took a more assertive tack, using footage from Monday night's foreign policy debate in a new ad chiding the president for "apologizing" for America and telegraphing weakness as commander in chief. "Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations," Romney said, glaring at the incumbent. "We have freed other nations from dictators."
While the polls and many pundits said Obama bested Romney in their final debate here in Florida, the former Massachusetts governor emerged from October's series of three face-to-face meetings stronger than before, forestalling any chance Obama might have had to put the contest away early. Less than two weeks until the election, the campaign is being fought entirely in states the president won four years ago, some handily.
But Romney needs to make up more ground than Obama, who appears to enjoy an electoral college advantage and a small lead in most of the competitive states, most importantly Ohio, which may be the fulcrum of the contest.
Whether a natural tightening, which Obama strategists say they long expected, or the product of a Romney surge, as the Republican's campaign asserts, the presidential race seems headed for a tight finish, more akin to 2004 or 2000 — an effective tie — than the president's big win four years ago.
With plenty of money but limited time, the travels of the candidates and their two running mates offered the best road map of where the race seems destined to be settled.
Most of the battlegrounds are familiar ones: Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida. All but Nevada, which leans toward Obama, and Colorado, a toss-up, were tied at this stage in 2004. Virginia and North Carolina, which Obama carried four years ago, are new additions to the home-stretch map.
Sounding bullish, Republican strategists said that Wisconsin, home of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan, is also competitive, and suggested Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania and Michigan could come into play as well. The Obama camp, however, was skeptical. "We'll know who's bluffing and who isn't in two weeks," said David Axelrod, the president's chief campaign strategist.
Any assessment of the political map is speculative and subject to dispute, but Obama seems to enjoy an edge.
States that are either solidly in the president's column or leaning that direction give him 243 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Romney can probably count on at least 191 electoral votes, with another 15 from North Carolina tipping his way, for 206. That would leave 89 electoral votes in just seven states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Of the two candidates, Romney faces the tougher lift. "You have two fairly evenly matched campaigns vying for the votes of a decreasing slice of the electorate," said Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist and expert on electoral math. "But for Romney to win he'll have to run the gamut of what we're now calling the swing states."
Romney almost certainly needs to carry Ohio — where he has consistently trailed Obama — as well as Florida and Virginia, and then add at least one other battleground state. If Obama wins Florida's 29 electoral votes, or even Ohio and its 18, Romney's path to the White House becomes exceedingly narrow.
By contrast, the president could lose all three of those states and their combined 60 electoral votes and still win a second term by taking Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Colorado. (A tall order, but not inconceivable; Wisconsin has not backed a Republican for president since 1984.)
Looking to cover as much ground as physically possible, both candidates set off Tuesday on grueling swing-state tours.
Campaigning before 11,000 supporters Tuesday morning in South Florida, Obama responded to Romney's assertions he lacked a second-term agenda by releasing the 20-page plan for the country, waving a copy before a crowd in Delray Beach and pledging it would "actually move America forward."
"By the way, the math in my plan adds up," Obama said, tweaking Romney for the vagueness of his across-the-board tax-cut proposal. "Folks who are not yet convinced, they can look right here. ... Compare our plans. See which one is better for you."