WASHINGTON -– In the closing days of a presidential campaign, there is often little each side can do other than hold on to their hats.
The candidates play it safe, their campaigns compete to out bluster each other with conference calls and strategy memos, and each new poll enters the political bloodstream with a noticeable jolt.
But when it comes to the command centers that have pulled the levers and driven the message from President Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago and Republican Mitt Romney's campaign office in Boston, these last few days are a weird anticlimax as senior aides come to the point where they have done almost everything they can do, barring an unforeseen development that needs attention.
"This is the phase when you hand the baton to the teams on the ground. Strategy is set. Schedule is getting locked down. Closing argument is in the can," said Dan Bartlett, who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. "The senior staff will end up spending more time on the phone with reporters and players on the ground in search of any anecdotal
"It's a weird feeling: lots of worrying, but no real way to change the trajectory!" Bartlett said.
Paul Begala, an adviser to President Bill Clinton –- and now an adviser to a super PAC supporting Obama's reelection -– said the "closing days of a presidential campaign are a special kind of madness."
"You chase ghosts and rumors all day, and wrestle between weary and worry all night," Begala said.
"In the closing days of the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton's friend, the legendary basketball coach Eddie Sutton, sent him a message: 'Bill, you are two points up with two minutes to play. Press, don't stall,'" Begala said. "Best political advice I ever heard."
"Both Romney and the president need to heed it," Sutton said.
Both sides on Wednesday made a show of pressing the other side. But at this point, with a race so close, each candidate is essentially trying to avoid mistakes while hoping their turnout operations deliver the votes they need, and that undecided voters break their way. Romney on Wednesday marked another day on the trail keeping a safe distance from the traveling press, and kept his stump speech in safe waters too. Obama has played it pretty safe too, but on this day, he was not campaigning. Instead, he toured from Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has been an outspoken critic of the president during the campaign, on Romney's behalf.
Obama and Christie held a joint press conference, a scene unthinkable before the disaster that claimed more than 60 lives hit the East Coast on Monday.
The president thanked the governor for "extraordinary leadership" and for putting "his heart and soul into making sure that the people of New Jersey bounce back even stronger than before."
Christie returned the favor, describing the president in a way that Obama himself sells himself to the nation on the campaign trail.
"He means what he says," Christie said of Obama.
On Thursday, Obama will pick the partisan mantle back up and hold a full day of rallies in Green Bay, Wis., Las Vegas, and Boulder, Colo. But Vice President Joe Biden got a head start on Wednesday, slamming Romney repeatedly at campaign stops in Florida.
Referencing Romney's now infamous 47 percent comment, Biden adopted a tone of outrage at a stop in Sarasota, Fla.
"This is insulting. He said 47 percent of the American people were quote not willing to take responsibility for their own lives. Who does he think he is? Where does he live? Not where I come from!" Biden shouted.
Romney and Ryan, still feeling their way back to a full-scale campaign after holding food and supply drives on Tuesday for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, kept their stump speeches relatively free of partisan attacks.
Romney talked at greater length than usual about his five-point plan for economic growth, and emphasized his record of working with a Democratic-controlled legislature when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.
"We worked together," Romney said of himself and Massachusetts Democrats, at a rally in Tampa. "This can happen. It has to happen in Washington. We've got to come together."
Both campaigns sent out top staff to play what has become a daily confidence game, with regular conference calls touting early voting performance, absentee ballots requested, and poll numbers.
"This professed momentum is really fauxmentum," Obama adviser David Axelrod said of the Romney campaign.
Romney adviser Russ Schriefer predicted on a call later in the day that Romney would be the next president, just as Obama campaign manager had said with total self-assurance on the call with Axelrod that Obama would be settling in this time next week to begin his second term.
"This race is exactly where we had hoped it would be," Schriefer said.
But there was one voice on the Romney call who let slip, in a rare moment of candor, where the race is really at.
This is, said Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, "a very tight race that is very far from being decided."
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