Obama, Romney campaigns battle to define state of tight presidential race

President Obama and Mitt Romney battled Tuesday to define the state of the presidential race with just two weeks to go before Election Day.

Senior Obama campaign officials blitzed the airwaves a day after a combative performance by Obama at the third presidential debate, with senior strategist David Axelrod saying his candidate was “even or ahead” in every battleground.

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Romney’s campaign countered that Obama did nothing Monday to shift momentum, painting the president as “increasingly desperate” and arguing his aggression onstage was evidence Obama believes he has fallen behind in the race.

“His campaign is taking on water and ours is full speed ahead,” a confident-sounding Romney said at a campaign event in Nevada, a swing state where Obama is seen as slightly ahead.

Both campaigns searched for signs of weakness in the other that could be used to motivate their own supporters while depressing the other side.

Romney’s campaign said Obama was finished in North Carolina, where recent polls suggests the president is unlikely to repeat his surprise 2008 victory, even though the state hosted this year’s Democratic convention.

Obama’s campaign rejected the suggestion; Axelrod said the campaign had registered a “huge” number of voters there. He also alleged that polls showing Obama behind there were “methodically suspect.”

“What is real is what’s going on on the ground in terms of early voting,” he said. “We believe it’s competitive and we’re going to do everything we can.

“We invested more money in television in that state. We’re going after North Carolina, as we are all the other battleground states, and I wouldn’t rule out anything between now and Election Day,” Axelrod concluded.

The dispute over North Carolina underscored the fact that a new, higher level of gamesmanship has entered the contest in the sprint to the finish line.

Romney’s campaign said it would move senior staff from North Carolina to other states, given its candidate’s “increasingly widening poll” advantage there. 

Democrats pointed out only a single GOP spokesman was actually pulled from the state, while local offices remained open and fully staffed. Restore Our Future, the super-PAC supporting Romney’s presidential bid, on Tuesday announced a new $1.8 million ad buy in the state.

While Axelrod said Obama could win North Carolina, Obama has no plans, in the wake of the last debate, to include the state on a campaign swing that dashes through seven other battlegrounds. Democratic strategist and Obama super-PAC adviser Paul Begala said Monday that Obama had likely given up on the state.

With no major events left before Election Day, both sides desperately want to convey the impression that it is their candidate who has the upward momentum. They are working furiously to convince undecided voters to join them on the winning side.

Obama officials pointed to Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin, four states where Romney has never held more than a fleeting lead in the polls, in arguing that the president is on course for reelection. They also argued Obama had recaptured momentum after the second and third debates, although national polls have not shown a shift back to the president.

“We have the ball, we have the lead, we have a great push-off as a result of these last two very strong debate performances,” Axelrod said. “This is a race we believe we’re leading. We believe we’re leading these battleground states.”

If the campaigns’ rhetoric does not indicate where the final battlegrounds will be, their travel schedules might.

Romney will visit Nevada, Iowa and Ohio throughout the remainder of the week, with GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan also visiting Virginia. The president will visit those four states, plus Florida and Colorado.

Obama’s team said its Chicago headquarters was filled with a mood of “cautious optimism.” Aides pointed to Team Obama’s efficiency at getting voters to the polls for early voting as indicating that the president is on track to win.

Obama also tried to blunt a Republican attack of recent days with the release of a 20-page plan for a second term, something critics said was missing from the president’s sales pitch.

Republicans say the release was reactive and is further evidence that Romney is hitting home with attacks suggesting Obama has no second-term agenda.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski called the pamphlet a “Chicago freak-out.”

“The Obama campaign is issuing a 20-page glossy brochure and calling it an agenda while playing defense and conducting conference calls trying to convince reporters their map isn’t narrowing,” Kukowski said in an email.

“With Obama facing problems from national polls trending toward Romney, to Obama losing Hispanics in Florida and his own super-PAC adviser saying he’ll lose North Carolina, reporters and pundits are starting to wonder if he is running out of time.”

The tight race underlined the importance of the “ground game” to both sides, as well as the need to rally supporters with declarations that the momentum is with them.

At rallies in Florida and Ohio on Tuesday, Obama sought to make his closing argument about trust.

“We’re accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four years ago. We are not accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four days ago,” Obama told a crowd in Delray Beach, Fla. “This is about trust. There’s no more serious issue in a presidential campaign than trust. The person who leads this country, you’ve got to have some confidence that he or she means what he or she says.”

In Nevada, Romney blasted Obama for presenting “a status quo candidacy.”

“This is a message of going forward with the same policies for the next four years,” Romney said. “That is why his campaign is slipping and ours is gaining steam.”