Election race heats up for Obama, Romney

Two months left. Now — after a fever-dream year of caucusing and nine-nine-nine-ing and moon colonies and talking to chairs — the presidential campaign is supposed to start getting interesting.

The coming weeks will bring four debates, a new avalanche of attack ads, and massive efforts to turn out voters. As a distracted country begins to tune in, candidates will focus on the sliver of Americans who are political enough to vote but not so partisan that they’ve already decided.

On Friday, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney began their sprint, each appearing in multiple states. Both focused on new jobless figures, the latest signal of the dismal economy that has hung over this campaign from the start.

“We know it’s not good enough,” Obama told an audience in Portsmouth, N.H. That statement applied just as much to his candidacy as to his country. “We need to create more jobs faster.”

Even now, after all that Romney and Obama have already said and done, it’s likely that many of their campaigns’ defining moments are still in the future. At this point in 2008, for instance, Lehman Brothers was still in business. Joe the Plumber was still just Joe, a plumber. And Obama was behind.

This year, Romney is hoping that the next plot twists will favor him.

“I know there’s a lot of bad news out there, but I’m looking beyond the bad news,” Romney said in Orange City, Iowa, trying to project optimism about both the U.S. economy and his own campaign. “I’m looking over the hill and seeing what’s going to happen just down the road just a bit. And what’s going to happen is America’s about to come roaring back.”

This is the last lap of a race that has always been close. Obama officially began his campaign last April. Romney began his last June. Now, after 15 months, the two remain virtually tied in national polls.

Obama does have a slight lead in two of eight key swing states: Florida and New Hampshire. Obama’s staff believes it has a “small but important” lead in others. But the polls show the remaining six — Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin — are still anybody’s guess.

In the past two weeks, both parties had hoped that their elaborate conventions might finally move this election’s stuck needle. Romney tried and failed: Polls showed no significant “bounce.” Obama’s convention ended Thursday, so it’s too soon to tell whether he did better.

At this point, few voters seem to be genuinely undecided. Polls show that less than one in 10 is genuinely open to changing his or her vote. But now, two vast machines — campaigns and allied organizations with at least $1 billion to spend — will set out to change the minds they can and motivate the ones already on their side.

On Friday, Romney’s campaign rolled out a $4.5 million ad buy, 15 new TV spots in eight states. “Here in insert state name, we’re not better off under President Obama,” the ads said.

“This is when ordinary people, as opposed to you and I … really begin to pay attention,” said Candice Nelson, a professor at American University. “Most people have real lives.”

The next key moment may be the first presidential debate, to be held Oct. 3 in Denver.

There, two highly stage-managed candidates will appear in an environment they can’t control. Both have faltered in this spotlight before: This spring, Romney offered Texas Gov. Rick Perry a whopping $10,000 bet. In 2008, Obama offered rival Hillary Clinton a backhanded compliment that was mainly backhand: “You’re likable enough.”

On Friday, however, the two campaigns remained locked in their old long-distance debate, going nowhere. Should Obama be blamed because the economy is faltering? Or should he be celebrated, because it’s not worse?

Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, campaigning in Nevada, argued it was the former.

Earlier in the day, a new jobs report showed that the economy added a paltry 96,000 jobs in August. The unemployment rate had declined, but for a depressing reason: More than 300,000 people stopped looking for work.

“President Obama is not a bad guy. He’s good at giving great speeches. He’s just really bad at creating jobs,” Ryan said, as some in the crowd booed Obama’s name. “If we want the next four years to be any different from the last four years, we need a new president.”

Obama, in Portsmouth, argued again that he had prevented a catastrophe. He focused on the fact that any jobs had been gained at all. He said Romney was offering only tired ideas for fixing the mess.

“Tax cuts, tax cuts, gut some regulations, oh, and more tax cuts,” Obama said derisively. “Tax cuts when times are good; tax cuts when times are bad. Tax cuts to help you lose a few extra pounds. Tax cuts to improve your love life. It will cure anything, according to them.”

There was also something even more tired: a debate about a speech. Romney aides panned Obama’s convention address on Thursday night, arguing that it fell flat in prime time.

But Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, countered that the speech will play well in the critical swing states and help boost voter registrations and turnout. Obama believes he “did exactly what he came to the convention to do last night,” campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Before he went on stage, Psaki said, his daughters, Malia and Sasha, reenacted a scene from the movie “Hannah Montana,” in which they told him, “Go get ‘em, baby,” and Obama “really enjoyed that. It made him laugh, and it just kind of reminded him of what’s important and what this is all about.”

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