US election enters final stretch

STORMING AHEAD::Both campaigns are scrambling to drum up voter support as the final day of the most expensive presidential race in history looms ever closer

AP, PENSACOLA, Florida

Mon, Oct 29, 2012 - Page 7

The big storm threatening the East Coast and a final jobs report before Election Day loomed large as US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney headed into the final full week of campaigning in a race that polls show is extraordinarily close.

Democrats claim math is on the US president’s side. Republicans insist Romney’s got the momentum.

Obama is banking on his get-out-the-vote efforts in the most competitive states. He is also making personal appeals as he encourages Americans to stick with him for a second term.

In pursuit of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, each candidate is starting to make his closing arguments. The goal is to win over the narrow slice of undecided, independent voters, moderates and, especially, women, as well as to persuade supporters to vote on Nov. 6, if not earlier in the many states where voting is already under way. Roughly one-third of the electorate will have voted before Election Day.

Presidents are not elected by national popular vote, but in state-by-state contests that allocate electoral votes. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its representatives in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. The winner needs a majority of the 538 electoral votes.

Obama is ahead in states and the District of Columbia representing 237 electoral votes; Romney has a comfortable lead in states with 191 electoral votes. There are nine contested battleground states — which are not reliably Democratic or Republican — that are too close to call.

The question now is whether the momentum Romney picked up after the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 is growing and can overcome the US president’s strong voter-identification and early voting efforts in the most competitive states.

The campaigns are scrambling to tweak schedules, shift manpower and pump millions more dollars into TV ads in battleground states that will determine the outcome.

Total campaign spending has exceeded US$2 billion, making this presidential race the most expensive in the history of electoral politics.

Any number of factors still could shift the race.

A massive weather system bearing down on the East Coast threatens to complicate the final days of campaigning and early voting across at least four pivotal states: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

Hurricane Sandy had both campaigns ripping up carefully mapped-out itineraries as they worked to maximize voter turnout.

Romney scrapped plans to campaign in Virginia yesterday, and switched his schedule to Ohio.

Romney, who has been striking a more moderate tone as he courts women and independents in the campaign’s home stretch, campaigned across Florida on Saturday with a pledge to “build bridges” with the other party.

However, he coupled that message with digs at Obama for “shrinking from the magnitude of the times.”

Romney held three events across Florida on Saturday, timed to coincide with the first day of in-person early voting in a state where 29 electoral votes are up for grabs.

Obama hauled his campaign to New Hampshire, where he accused Romney of making life more expensive for the middle class during his term as Massachusetts governor.

“All he’s offering is a big rerun of the same policies,” Obama told a crowd of 8,500 gathered at an outdoor rally in Nashua.

The US president said Romney even raised fees in Massachusetts on obtaining a birth certificate, “which would have been expensive for me.”

It was a veiled reference to opponents of the US president who have incorrectly said he was born outside the US.

Both sides acknowledge that Obama has a larger campaign organization on the ground in most states and that Democrats have an edge in the push to get supporters to the polls early.

Obama advisers insist the US president is leading or tied in all nine of those states, though strategists in both parties say North Carolina has shifted toward Romney in recent days. Romney aides insist that state-based polling underestimates the former Massachusetts governor’s popularity with independents.

Obama aides say they expect the demographics of the electorate to look similar to the 2008 election, with slight increases in black and Hispanic voters.

While Romney and Obama are deadlocked in national polls, there were signs that the burst of momentum Romney got from the debates had waned in Ohio, Virginia and elsewhere. Because Obama starts with more states and votes solidly in his expected win column, Romney’s team has fewer ways to reach the 270 electoral votes.