WASHINGTON — Heading toward the final week of a long campaign, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are locked in a neck-and-neck contest, with Obama scrapping like a challenger and Romney campaigning like a president.
National and swing state polls are inconclusive, and a host of intangibles is likely to sway the outcome: Who will turn out? How do people feel in their gut about the economy? And is there a real “October surprise” that will give one candidate a last-minute shove across the finish line? One potential game changer: The government will report the latest unemployment numbers on Friday, the last report before Election Day four days later.
The final push is likely to mean an unprecedented blur of messages to Americans in about a dozen contested states – on TV, in the mailbox, in Twitter accounts and email inboxes – while Americans in the rest of the country will watch almost as bystanders, their states leaning solidly toward one candidate or the other.
Romney heads into this last stretch trying to motivate voters with lofty generalities and an appeal to patriotic instincts.
Think big, the former Massachusetts governor implores audiences. The economy’s weak, but I’m a turnaround artist and I’ll fix it. He ends speeches by quoting lines from "America the Beautiful."
"Our campaign is about big things, because we happen to believe that America faces big challenges," he told an Ames, Iowa, audience Friday. "This is a year with a big choice, and the American people want to see big changes. And together we can bring real change to this country."
Obama talks big, too, but he also spends lots of time tearing into Romney, sometimes in unusually blunt language for the normally cautious Obama. “A bullshitter,” he said of Romney in an interview with Rolling Stone released this week.
Accused of running a negative campaign with no agenda of his own, Obama’s campaign this week put together a 20-page "New Economic Patriotism" booklet. The campaign’s running ads and telling crowds that Romney would return American society to the ugly old days.
"You can choose to turn back the clock 50 years for women and immigrants and gays, or in this election, you can stand up for that basic principle enshrined in our founding documents that all of us are created equal," Obama said Thursday in Cleveland.
"All of us (are) endowed with certain inalienable rights by our creator . . . it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight, abled or disabled," he said.
Neither candidate has been able to open up a sizable lead, either nationally or in swing states, for months. Even the three debates ended up a virtual tie. While Romney won the first, Obama did better in the second and the third. As a result, the candidates wound up in a "virtual draw," Gallup found.
In state after state, the race comes down to the same variables: Who voters think can best manage the economy, and who will show up at the polls.
The economy grew at a sluggish 2 percent pace in the last quarter, and unemployment remains historically high. Largely as a result, Obama’s approval rating flirts with the magic 50 percent mark.
That struggle signals trouble, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. People have known Obama for four years and made their judgment, while they’re just getting to know Romney.
Romney also maintains a Republican base firmly on his side. "This year Republicans would vote for a badly sculpted piece of driftwood over Obama," Sabato said.
The best clue to the race’s trajectory in these last days is the candidates’ travel. According to RealClearPolitics, a nonpartisan website, the contest is now in a virtual tie in 11 states. Romney and Obama plan to spend the first part of this week in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Florida and Wisconsin.
The states to watch, though, could be those where a candidate seemed assured of victory but finds the polls suddenly tightening. An Obama or Romney visit to Michigan, Arizona or Pennsylvania would suggest those states are now in play.
Michigan and Pennsylvania have long been seen as safe Obama states. But RealClearPolitics has both in the "tossup" category, as polls show Obama’s lead is between 4 and 5 percentage points.
"The polls here tightened after the first debate and stayed there," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nonpartisan publication. "Michigan is still in bad shape." And there are still enough voters who fondly remember Romney’s father, George, the state’s governor from 1963 to 1969.
Should Obama start to pull away, the states to watch would be Arizona and North Carolina. Arizona has long been a Republican stronghold. But the president might have a chance if Latino voters turn out in big numbers, said Earl de Berge, editor of the Phoenix-based Rocky Mountain Poll. “There’s real anger in the Latino community" over restrictive, Republican-backed immigration policies, de Berge said. His October 4-10 survey found Hispanic voters favored Obama by a 77 percent to 10 percent margin.
The week’s biggest wild card is the unknown, the "October surprise." Hurricane Sandy is expected to churn up the East Coast this week and could inflict catastrophic damage.
Would that allow Obama to look more presidential as he mobilizes the government’s emergency team? Or would it stall both candidates’ campaigns in East Coast battlegrounds from Florida to New Hampshire?
On the economic front, the government on Friday will release new unemployment figures for October. A month ago, the rate dropped to 7.8 percent, the first time since Obama took office in January 2009 the figure dropped below 8 percent.