COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The long, costly and contentious presidential campaign wound down Tuesday to a series of final stops in a handful of fiercely competitive states, as President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney sought to fortify their positions in the country’s few remaining battlegrounds.
For Romney, who faces the steeper path, that meant visits to Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire; for Obama, stops in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Both descended on Ohio, which has emerged as the fulcrum of the contest. An Obama win there could seal a second term in the White House, given the Electoral College math and the edge he enjoys in other big Midwestern states.
Romney, facing a small but persistent Obama lead in the Buckeye State, was making a late play for Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania, hoping to expand the political map. His campaign announced plans Monday for an election day stop in Pittsburgh as well as a visit to Cleveland.
An air of confidence suffused the Obama campaign, even as the two sides skirmished block-by-block, precinct-by-precinct in key states, fighting to turn out every last supporter.
On Monday evening, members of Obama’s national finance committee gathered in Chicago, the campaign’s headquarters city, for a pre-election reception. The mood, said one top fundraiser, “was very upbeat.”
“Everyone is predicting victory, but we don’t want to jinx it. Weird things can happen when you’re that close.”
Romney was hardly capitulating. He began his day not long after dawn in Florida and was scheduled to campaign almost to midnight, planning a final rally in New Hampshire with singer Kid Rock, whose “Born Free” has become the GOP nominee’s campaign anthem.
“The question of the election comes down to this: Do you want four more years like the last four years or do you want real change?” Romney asked a crowd of several thousand in Lynchburg, Va.
“Now of course, President Obama promised change, he just couldn’t deliver it. I not only promise change, I have a record of achieving it,” Romney said, referring to his years in private business, rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics and term as Massachusetts governor. “That’s why I’m running for president, I know how to change the nation, how to get it back on course, how to create jobs, how to get a balanced budget, how to get rising take-home pay.”
Obama began his campaign day Monday morning alongside Bruce Springsteen before a crowd of about 18,000 in Madison, Wis.
The president cited passage of landmark healthcare legislation, his repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibition on gay soldiers, and imposition of tougher regulations on Wall Street. “We have come too far to turn back now,” he said. “We’ve come too far to let our hearts grow faint. Now is the time to keep pushing forward.”
With an eye on maximizing turnout of the party faithful, the two candidates staged rallies that doubled as get-out-the-vote efforts, providing celebrity entertainment to help spike attendance and draw coverage on the local TV news.
At an Obama rally In Columbus, the rapper Jay-Z politicized his lyrics before making a pitch for a big turnout at the polls, modifying one of his most popular lyrics to state: “I got 99 problems, but Mitt ain’t one.”
When he took the stage, the president said it “incredible honor” to have Springsteen and Jay-Z on the same bill, and not just because he’s a fan of both artists.
“It’s also because both of them tell an American story,” Obama said. “They tell the story of what our country is and what it can be, and what we need to fight for.”
Romney had his own Columbus rally planned, with support from Southern rock’s Marshall Tucker Band.
Campaigning in Fairfax, Va., just outside Washington, D.C, he took after Obama’s labor support, suggesting the president would hurt job creation by making it easier for unions to organize.
He was referring to “card check” legislation that would compel companies to recognize a union if a majority of workers publicly declared their support. Romney said Obama’s support for the concept showed him placing liberal ideology ahead of fixing the nation’s economy.
“Does that create jobs?” Romney asked
“No!” responded the crowd of several thousand, gathered in a college basketball arena.
Earlier, Ann Romney introduced her husband by alluding to the proximity of northern Virginia to the White House, just across the Potomac River.
“Are we going to be neighbors soon?” she said. “It’s so exciting to have walked into a room like this and get greeted like that. But the thing you don’t know: There’s as many of you outside as inside right now. And that’s the momentum we have been feeling. It’s not just in Virginia. It’s all across this country.”
Times Staff Writer Seema Mehta contributed to this story from Lynchburg and Fairfax, Va.