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Campaigns Crisscross Nation As Election Nears


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Want to know how tight the presidential race is? President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney spent the week barnstorming across a handful of battleground states - mostly the same states, including Iowa, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado - to fire up supporters and make a pitch to win wavering voters. We're joined now by NPR's Scott Horsley, who's been covering President Obama's reelection campaign. He's in our studio. Thanks for being with us, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIMON: And NPR's Ari Shapiro is with us. He has been traveling with Mitt Romney's campaign. Ari, thank you for being with us.


SIMON: And let's begin with you. The national polls show the race essentially tied. The Romney campaign says that since they've come from behind that means they have momentum - sorry to use that tired old word. Mr. Romney's been putting himself forward as the candidate of big change. What's the strategy for the campaign?

SHAPIRO: Well, that word momentum - you're not the only one using it a lot this week. The campaign officials are saying it every day as many times as they can. And as you say, big change has been kind of the refrain that Mitt Romney has been using from the stump. He's framed himself as the candidate for change, and Barack Obama, the president, as the candidate of the status quo. That's the one big motif that we've been hearing from him on the stump this week. The other big motif is he's trying to personalize this race, talking about what another four years of the Obama administration would mean to a family. So, on the stump you'll hear him talk about a hypothetical senior citizen, a breadwinner, a college student, a young kid going to school; and he talks about the impact of whether President Obama or Mitt Romney is elected, what impact that would have on each of the members of this family. So, here was something that he said yesterday in Ames, Iowa, that captures sort of the family motif and the big change motif.

MITT ROMNEY: This is not the time to double down on trickledown government policies that have failed us. It's time for new bold changes that measure up to the moment and that can bring America's families the certainty that the future will be better than the past.

SIMON: You usually don't hear Republicans being critical of trickledown.

SHAPIRO: That's a phrase actually that Mitt Romney debuted in the first debate against President Obama - trickledown government was the phrase - and he's been using it on the stump quite a lot since then.

SIMON: Scott Horsley, how has President Obama's pitch to voters shifted in these final days?

HORSLEY: Well, Scott, there's still some effort on the part of the president to win over undecided voters. This week, his campaign released a glossy brochure that outlines some of the president's goals for a second term. And he's been showing it off at his campaign rallies, like one in Tampa earlier this week urging supporters to share it with their friends.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are still people out there who are trying to make up their minds. There might even be some here who are trying to make up their minds. Maybe - no, no, no - maybe, maybe, you know, your girlfriend said you got to come. You know, she's smart enough. She's already voting for Obama, but you need some persuading. So, I ask you to compare my plan to Governor Romney's plan.

HORSLEY: But in these last couple of weeks of the campaign, that persuasion message has really started to take a backseat, and at this point it's less about winning over converts than making sure the people who are already in the Obama camp actually get out to the polls. At some of the rallies, they'll have buses standing by to take people directly to an early polling location. At other rallies, they'll have printed on the back of the ticket a list of places where voters can go. So, it's not so much a sales pitch anymore as detailed instructions on how to pick up the merchandise.

SIMON: That's what they call the ground game, right?

HORSLEY: Exactly.

SIMON: Actually getting people to the polls. Ari Shapiro, let me turn to you, because Mr. Romney's had the added challenge of trying of distance himself from a couple of controversial Republicans - the Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock ignited another controversy over rape and abortion. One of Mr. Romney's surrogates, John Sununu, suggested that Colin Powell's recent re-endorsement of President Obama was motivated by race. How does the campaign deal with these statements, which, in addition to anything else, takes focus from the candidate's message?

SHAPIRO: Well, for the most part, they're not dealing with it head-on. I mean, this is not a campaign that takes daily questions from the press. But even by those standards, this campaign has been remarkably absent from the press back of the plane in the last few days. Mitt Romney has not taken any questions. No traveling press secretary has come and answered questions from the press. At a rally, a couple of reporters pulled an aide aside and asked, for example, why Mitt Romney, after condemning Richard Mourdock's statement in Indiana, did not ask Mourdock to take down the ad featuring Mitt Romney. The campaign aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, said, well, that's Mourdock's decision. Similarly, with John Sununu, the surrogate who made the comment about Colin Powell endorsing President Obama on account of race, Sununu retracted that. The campaign never said a thing, but, you know, one indication of their reaction is that Sununu was scheduled to do an interview with NPR and the campaign said, sorry. We're going to have to reschedule that for some time in the future - this was not their phrase but I think, perhaps, never was implied.

SIMON: Scott Horsley, the Commerce Department said this week the nation's gross domestic product grew by two percent, better than some expectations. How does this affect the president's closing argument on the economy?

HORSLEY: Well, that GDP number for the third quarter is not great but is, as you say, better than expected and better than what we saw in the second quarter. So, it fits the president's narrative that the economy is one the mend, albeit slowly. Maybe more important for the election, consumer sentiment is improving. We saw some new numbers yesterday that showed consumers are feeling better about the economy now and the economic prospects than they have really since before the recession began. Home prices are rebounding, gas prices are coming down. So, all of that is helpful, although at this point in the race, you know, a lot of consumers may have sort of already made up their minds about the president's economic stewardship. We will get one more big indicator next Friday - the new monthly jobs number just a few days before November 6th.

SIMON: I want to ask you both the same last question: both campaigns are clearly focused on winning the states they need to prevail in the Electoral College. In the next few days, they'll both be in Ohio. I don't mind saying, next week, I'll be in Ohio. So, Ohio, Ohio, Ohio - what do you see? What do you look for? Ari Shapiro?

SHAPIRO: Well, Mitt Romney's got two paths to 270 electoral votes. Basically, one path goes through Ohio and one path goes through winning every other swing state in the map - that's a slight exaggeration but not by much. And so it's no surprise that in a week when he has been all over the map in a ton of swing states, half of his events were in that one swing state of Ohio.

HORSLEY: And the Obama team says they also feel good about their prospects in Ohio. The economy there is a little stronger than the rest of the country. The auto rescue was a big factor in that state where cars and car parts are a big industry. But they say it's close. And so the president will also be spending a lot of time campaigning in Ohio over the next nine, ten days.

SIMON: Gentlemen, all I can say is see you in Ohio.

HORSLEY: Have fun, Scott.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Horsley, who's with the Obama campaign; NPR's Ari Shapiro with the Romney campaign.

SHAPIRO: Good to be with you.

HORSLEY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.