DEFIANCE, Ohio -– As the Election Day countdown neared single-digit territory Thursday, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney continued their furious pace of campaigning in swing states, with both finding positive news in polls and each ending the day with a dramatic night-time rally.
It's hard to see how this race could get any tighter.
Here in northwest Ohio, Romney held his third rally of the day in the key Buckeye State -– where the presidency looks likely to be decided -– with 12,000 supporters at the local high school football stadium.
"We're gonna win guys, we're gonna win," Romney said as he walked on stage, after a number of musicians, including Big and Rich, Randy Owen of Alabama, and Meat Loaf played for the crowd.
Teenagers from the high school flirted in the end zone at the back of the crowd, and local shops hawked barbecue and ice cream from portable trailers. Meat Loaf implored the crowd: "Get out there and you argue with your relatives, you argue with your neighbors, you get in fights over politics and religion, because we need Ohio!"
"Keep rocking, and Mitt Romney!" he yelled.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) used the setting as inspiration for a sports analogy.
"We're in the red zone. We can't afford not to leave everything on the field in the last 12 days of this election," said Portman, who has become a trusted Romney adviser.
On the other side of the state, Obama rallied 12,000 supporters of his own in Cleveland, inside Cuyahoga County, where he defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 260,000 votes in 2008.
Air Force One landed at Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport, and pulled right up to the massive crowd, depositing the president down the steps to huge cheers.
"We've got a long way to go, but Ohio, we've come too far to turn back now," Obama told the crowd, his voice raspy from speaking at two rallies earlier in the day and three the day before that.
"Even though my voice is getting kind of hoarse, I've still got a spring in my step," Obama said. "Because our cause is right. Because we're fighting for the future."
Romney introduced a new buzzword into his stump speech, telling crowds in the Cincinnati and Columbus suburbs, and then Defiance, that he and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), represent "big change" for the country.
"This is a time when America faces big challenges. We have a big election. And we want a president who will actually bring big changes and I will and he won't," Romney said, referring to Obama. He said Obama "has been getting smaller and smaller," mocking the president as playing "silly word games," a reference to Obama's use of the term "Romnesia" this week.
"You're seeing a campaign which is an incredibly shrinking campaign right before your very eyes," Romney said.
Obama's campaign, meanwhile, stepped up attempts to tie Romney to Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, pressing Romney to withdraw his endorsement. Mourdock this week described his opposition to abortion in such a way that some accused him of saying that rape and any pregnancy that results was the will of God. Mourdock, who favors an exception for abortion to save the life of the mother, clarified that he was saying that each act of conception is divine, and condemned those who he said were twisting his words.
The Romney campaign rebuked Mourdock for his comments, but Romney has not withdrawn his endorsement of the Senate candidate. Aides to Romney said Thursday he has no intention of doing so. Romney, who opposes abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, ignored questions from reporters on Thursday morning on the topic.
The Obama campaign sent several press releases on the topic Thursday. Obama mentioned it in his stump speech, and then, in an interview with NBC News, the president said "it is important for women to have confidence that their president knows this is a set of decisions for them to make in consultations with their families, their clergy."
"It is not something that politicians need to get involved in," Obama said.
The abortion issue is a sensitive one for Romney, who has made up ground among women voters over the past month after trailing Obama by a large margin. Romney still faces a deficit with women voters overall. Obama is hoping to increase his lead by pressing hard on the Mourdock comments.
The election in Ohio, and thus the presidency, will likely hinge on about 10,000 independent women voters in and around Columbus, the literal and political center of this state, according to Ohio political operatives. But every part of the state is crucial, as Obama and Romney strain to maximize advantages where they are strong and to reduce their margin of defeat where they know they will lose.
Romney began the day in Cincinnati, home of Hamilton County, which went for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but which Obama won in 2008 by 30,000 votes. The counties around Hamilton -– Butler, Warren and Clermont -– are Republican counties, making the southwest of the state Romney's natural base. Romney's second rally of the day was in the northern suburbs of Columbus.
On Friday, Romney will fly to Ames, Iowa, for a speech that his campaign is labeling his "closing argument." Then he'll return to Ohio for an evening rally with Ryan in Canton, in the lower northeast -- Rust Belt territory. Stark County has voted Democratic the last two presidential elections, but went for Bush in 2000. Every four years it has been close there.
Obama started his day in Tampa, Fla., after flying overnight from Las Vegas, then held a midday rally in Richmond, Va., before heading to his hometown of Chicago to cast his vote in person at his local polling place, bringing high-profile attention to the early voting process. It was the president's second straight day of a whirlwind national tour. On Wednesday, he campaigned in Davenport, Iowa, then Denver, taped an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," and held a late-night rally in Nevada.
Romney and Obama will be back to Ohio often between now and Election Day. Obama is scheduled to hold a rally Monday in Youngstown with former President Bill Clinton. Romney also plans to come back Monday, to Dayton, a county that narrowly went Democratic the last three cycles. Romney has several more stops planned in the state after Monday over the final week of the campaign.
Many jobs in Defiance are tied to the auto industry, specifically to a General Motors plant. Portman sought to reassure the crowd that "everything Mitt Romney is proposing is going to help the auto companies." Obama has made Romney's opposition to a bridge loan from the government in the winter of 2008 for GM and Chrysler, widely credited with allowing them to survive long enough to find financing for a managed bankruptcy, an issue in the campaign.
"Voters in Ohio won’t forget how -- at a make-or-break moment for one of America’s key industries -- Mitt Romney would have turned his back and watched GM and Chrysler go under," said Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith.
While Obama spent most of the day on the attack, Romney focused on casting an optimistic vision for the future and on emphasizing the way he would bring bipartisan cooperation to Washington, a promise that Obama himself made in 2008 and reaped huge political dividends from.
"I'm going to meet regularly with Democrats … work together, work together to solve our problems," Romney said to big cheers.
The polls in Ohio continue to give Obama a slight edge. Three polls in the last few days have showed a tie, but all the others have given Obama a lead ranging from one percentage point to five percentage points. And in other swing states, there were a few surveys Thursday that showed potential progress for Obama in Colorado and North Carolina, two states that have been trending toward Romney.
But an ABC News/Washington poll out Thursday showed Romney at 50 percent nationally, compared with Obama's 47 percent. And on the question of who is better trusted to handle the economy, Romney had opened up a lead, 52 percent to 43 percent, among likely voters. Romney also had closed a gap on who "better understands the economic problems of average Americans," trailing Obama by two points.
The two sides traded memos again on Thursday, claiming that early and absentee voting data favored them. But both sides were also selective in what they shared, making the memos mostly an exercise in posturing.
Romney adviser Ron Kaufman, a veteran of numerous campaigns and a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, said the campaign is as hard-fought as any he can remember.
"I do think there's an intensity to this one, where the only thing close to it is '80," he said. "I honestly do feel, as trite as it sounds, kind of of like it really matters."