GOP takes new tack: Romney can still win while losing Ohio

Senior Republican strategists are talking openly about how Mitt Romney’s campaign can win the presidency even if it loses Ohio.

That new tack suggests the path to victory could be narrowing for the GOP nominee, who has cut into President Obama’s lead nationally and in some states but continues to trail in the key swing state, which no Republican has ever lost while winning the presidency.

The first presidential debate could greatly alter the campaign's strategy, however, following Romney's strong performance. The GOP nominee came out firing at Obama, who spent much of the evening on the defense.

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Party leaders, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and strategist Karl Rove, have argued in recent days that there is a path to victory for Romney without Ohio.

“Ohio is extremely important but I also know that we have other good things going for us right now as well: Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada,” Priebus told The Hill on Wednesday morning.

While he described Ohio as “extremely close,” he says he also sees “avenues to 270 [electoral votes] opening up for Mitt Romney in places that weren’t there in ’08.”

Priebus’s comments come on the heels of Rove’s remark last week that “There are 11 different ways to win without Ohio.”

Polling in the state over the past few weeks has shown Obama’s lead growing, with the president up by 8 points in the most recent poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist.

If he loses the state, Romney has to all but sweep the rest of the map to win the presidency. Republicans feel the most confident about North Carolina and Florida, where Romney is expected to do well, and believe they’re even with Obama or only slightly trailing in Virginia, Iowa and Colorado. 

Romney will have to carry all of those states and win Wisconsin or both New Hampshire and Nevada, three states where polls have Obama leading by comfortable margins. 

“They’re not writing off Ohio, but they’re preparing in case they don’t win there,” one Republican strategist with knowledge of the Romney campaign’s internal discussions told The Hill.

There are no signs Romney will back down in Ohio — he and Paul Ryan spent a combined three days campaigning there last week, and the Romney campaign and other Republicans vehemently denied that there were any plans to shift resources elsewhere. To do so would also make little sense, given the GOP’s big money advantage and the already narrow path Romney faces to an Electoral College victory. 

“There are a number of different paths to victory for Gov. Romney and we’re going to be competing hard in all of the swing states,” a Romney spokesman told The Hill. “There have been no changes in strategy for us … He’ll be back plenty in Ohio, and so will Paul Ryan.”

But spending by Romney’s campaign and the outside groups supporting him indicate they are making contingency plans. According to a GOP ad tracker, Romney and his allies are spending a combined $4.2 million in Ohio this week, a substantial investment but a dip from the $6.3 million they spent there last week and the $5 million they spent the week before.

By contrast, GOP ad spending has recently jumped in a number of other swing states. In Colorado, it tripled from $800,000 last week to $2.4 million this week, and in Nevada spiked to $1.8 million in the past week from $1.1 million the week before. 

Romney also has spent the last few days in the Southwest, along with a number of surrogates, including his wife, Ann, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), although some of that could be explained by Wednesday’s debate in Denver.

Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley predicted Romney would win Ohio and called recent public polls of the state showing Obama ahead “garbage.” But he did say he saw ways for Romney to win even if he didn’t carry the state.

“I wouldn’t say we’re making contingency plans on if we can’t win Ohio — the map is very much in play and we have more than a month left, an eternity left in presidential politics —but we’re prepared,” he said in a call with The Hill from Colorado, where he was helping the local operation begin its absentee-ballot push. “At the end of the day I don’t know which states will fall into which categories, but we’ll have the electoral votes to win, for sure.”

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