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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, center, talks with foreign policy adviser Dan Senor, left, and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., before boarding his campaign plane at Daytona International Airport, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Tactics set, Obama, Romney hurtle toward finish
Close race » Two expected events, Monday debate and jobless stats Nov. 2 could affect the polls
First Published Oct 20 2012 01:01 pm • Last Updated Oct 20 2012 02:02 pm

Norfolk, Va. • With one debate and one jobs report to go, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are hurtling towards Election Day in a virtual deadlock, each convinced that victory is within reach if his campaign sticks with its plan.

In 16 days, voters will prove one of them wrong.

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When that happens, the losing team will have years to ponder whether one final tweak in tactics or message might have turned a fiercely fought, sometimes joyless election that seems likely to rank among the nation’s closest.

Having steadied himself after a damaging first debate, Obama is banking on his renowned get-out-the-vote ground operation to steer millions of supporters to the polls. Many have already voted, under early balloting scenarios that favor campaigns with the most volunteers to flush out potential supporters.

Republicans, meanwhile, feel Romney has finally broken through with his message that the economy can be much better, and that he’s the man to prove it. He pounded that theme in last week’s second debate, sounding almost like a romance counselor in imploring Americans not "to settle" for a less robust economy than they deserve.

Interviews with top strategists indicate that neither campaign feels it needs to make a significant shift in strategy in the closing days. Obama may hold a slight edge in battleground states, some Republicans grudgingly say, but Romney has the time, money and message to erase it.

"Republicans are coalescing around a candidate who has bridged the credibility gap, and now the question is, can we make our closing arguments and win on the ground," said veteran GOP strategist Terry Holt. "We’re not there yet. But that’s where we’re getting to."

Two scheduled events before Nov. 6 could wrinkle the race’s fabric, although millions of Americans have already voted or firmly made up their minds.

Obama and Romney meet Monday for their final debate, focused on foreign policy. It’s a topic that generally favors an incumbent president. But the forum comes as Obama faces growing heat over the administration’s handling of a deadly confrontation at a U.S. consulate in Libya.

Romney stumbled last week when he tried to press that point. He will be under pressure to deliver a sharper, more precise indictment Monday.

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The economy remains the top issue, but to make his closing pitch to voters, Romney "needs to look strong and presidential in a national security setting," said Steve Schmidt, who managed Republican John McCain’s 2008 campaign.

And on Nov. 2 — less than 100 hours before Election Day — the government will release its monthly unemployment report, for October. It’s doubtful that anything short of a huge rise or fall in the rate would change many votes’ minds. But in a neck-and-neck election, almost any event might be viewed as crucial.

Republicans remain buoyed by what they see as the substantial and long-lasting boost Romney received from his strong showing in the first debate, on Oct. 3, when the president seemed listless.

Obama apparently stopped his slide with a vastly improved performance in the second forum, two weeks later. But even the most partisan Democrats don’t say he completely undid the damage from Oct. 3.

Pollsters and strategists in both parties say the two debates essentially returned the contest to its mid-August status, before Obama enjoyed a bounce from the late-summer nominating conventions.

Romney now is focused on the two-step strategy every challenger must pursue: Obama deserves to be fired, he says, and he, Romney, is a qualified alternative.

It’s the essence of Romney’s argument from the start. His campaign hopes the noise from flubs — such as Romney’s criticism of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax — has subsided to the point that voters are ready to tune in.

The race "is definitely going in the right direction," Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, told a Florida radio show Friday. "It’s going to come down to turnout, voter enthusiasm."

Despite such optimism, the Electoral College map remains in Obama’s favor. He carried more states than he needed in 2008, so he can lose several of them next month and still win a second term.

Romney’s path is much narrower. He must take away at least a half-dozen states from Obama. And they can’t be just the small ones like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Florida is an absolute must for Romney. Ohio is the next closest thing. Democrats see Ohio, with its lower-than-average unemployment rate and general embrace of the president’s auto industry bailout, as their best chance to stop Romney cold.

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