Debates over, Obama, Romney pumped for dash to finish
BOCA RATON, Fla. • Their debates now history, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on Tuesday open a two-week sprint to Election Day powered by adrenaline, a boatload of campaign cash and a determination to reach Nov. 6 with no would-have, should-have regrets in their neck-and-neck fight to the finish.
From here, the candidates will vastly accelerate their travel, ad spending and grass-roots mobilizing in a race that's likely to cost upward of $2 billion by the time it all ends.
Obama's campaign released a 20-page booklet called the "Blueprint for America's Future" on Tuesday to promote a second term agenda, responding to Republican criticism that the president has not clearly articulated a plan for the next four years.
The campaign was printing 3.5 million copies of the plan, which were being distributed at campaign events and field offices across the country, aiming to outline proposals Obama has discussed to improve education, boost manufacturing jobs, enhance U.S.-made energy, reduce the federal deficit and raise taxes on the wealthy.
The plan was part of a closing argument to voters pitched in a new 60-second television advertisement released following the final debate. In the ad, Obama speaks directly to the camera about his plans for a second term and touts economic gains.
"We're not there yet," Obama says in the ad, "but we've made real progress and the last thing we should do is turn back now." The ad will air in the nine states whose electoral votes are still considered up for grabs New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.
No surprise then, that Obama campaigns Tuesday in Florida and Ohio while Romney heads West to Nevada and Colorado.
Asked Tuesday whether the race comes down to Ohio, Virginia and Florida as some observers have suggested, Vice President Joe Biden described the three as "critically important." He predicted victory in Ohio and Florida without mentioning Virginia.
"Look, this is going to be close," Biden said in an appearance on NBC's "Today" show. "We always knew at the end of the day this was going to be a close race, no matter who the Republicans nominated."
Neither candidate scored a knockout punch in their third and last debate Monday, as both men reined in the confrontational sniping that had marked their last testy encounter. The topic was foreign policy, and Romney went in to the debate with a key piece of advice from his aides: talk about peace in an appeal to independent voters, particularly women, who are weary of more than a decade of war. "I want to see peace," Romney said in his closing argument.
For guidance during debate preparation, aides looked to the first debate between Ronald Reagan and then-President Jimmy Carter. "Our first priority must be world peace, and that use of force is always and only a last resort, when everything else has failed," Reagan said when asked how he differed from Carter on how America should exercise its military power.
Aides also encouraged Romney to try not to take the bait they were sure Obama would offer in the form of sharp attacks or distortions of Romney's record. They said they worried about Romney's tendency to veer off track when attacked and worried he would be prone to making a mistake if he did so in an area like foreign policy, where he is farther out of his comfort zone. Unlike previous debates, Romney did allow some of Obama's criticism to go unanswered.
Romney's campaign produced a new television commercial overnight using footage from the debate of the GOP nominee lecturing Obama for going on an "apology tour" of Middle East nations while never visiting Israel as president.
With 270 electoral votes needed for victory, Obama at this point appears on track to win 237 while Romney appears to have 191. The other 110 are in the hotly contested battleground states.
The candidates' strategies for getting to 270 are implicit in their itineraries for the next two weeks and in their spending on campaign ads.
Obama and his Democratic allies already have placed $47 million in ad spending across battlegrounds in the campaign's final weeks, while Romney and the independent groups supporting his candidacy have purchased $53 million, significantly upping their buys in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And both sides are expected to pad their totals.
After Obama and Biden campaign together in Ohio on Tuesday, the president splits off on what his campaign is describing as a two-day "around-the-clock" blitz to six more battleground states. He'll be in constant motion making voter calls and sleeping aboard Air Force One as he flies overnight Wednesday from Nevada to Tampa, Fla.
The vice president is midway through a three-day tour of uber-battleground Ohio, and Obama's team contends its best way of ensuring victory is a win there. The campaign says internal polling gives Obama a lead in the Midwestern battleground state, in large part because of the popularity of the president's bailout of the auto industry.
But even if Obama loses Ohio, his campaign sees another pathway to the presidency by nailing New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are picking up the pace of their campaigning as well, and their schedule reflects an overarching strategy to drive up GOP vote totals in areas already friendly to the Republican nominee.
The Denver suburbs. Cincinnati. Reno, Nev. They're places that typically vote Republican, but where McCain fell short of the margins he needed to defeat Obama. To win in all-important Ohio, the GOP nominee must outperform McCain in typically Republican areas.
Romney and Ryan start their two-week dash in Henderson, Nev., then hopscotch to the Denver area for a rally with rocker-rapper Kid Rock and country music's Rodney Atkins at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Then Romney heads back to Nevada, on to Iowa and then east to Ohio for three overnights in a row. By week's end, he's likely to be back in Florida.
The following week brings a significant uptick in Romney's schedule. Aides say he'll touch down in two or three states a day, or hold that many daily events in big states like Florida.
Both sides are working furiously to lock down every possible early vote, and the results are evident in the 4.4 million people who've already cast ballots. Obama will detour to Chicago Thursday to make a statement about voting early by becoming the first president to cast his own early ballot.
Benac reported from Washington. AP writers Kasie Hunt in Boca Raton, Fla., and Nedra Pickler, Julie Pace, Jack Gillum and Beth Fouhy in Washington and contributed to this report. More online
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