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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2012 -- Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to supporters following his victory speech on election night in Chicago, Illinois on November 6, 2012. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
2008 -- Barack Obama
Nov. 4, 2008: U.S. president-elect Barack Obama waves at his supporters during his election night victory rally at Grant Park in Chicago. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
2004 -- George W. Bush
In this Nov. 3, 2004 file photo, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush salute and wave during an election victory rally at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
2000 -- George W. Bush
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush casts his vote in Austin, Texas on November 7, 2000. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
1996 -- Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea wave to supporters in front of the Old State House during an election night celebration in Little Rock, Ark. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
1992 -- Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton and Al Gore celebrate in Little Rock, Arkansas after winning in a landslide election on November 3, 1992. (AP Photo)
1988 -- George H. W. Bush
President-elect George Bush and his family celebrate his victory on November 8,1988 at the Brown Convention Center in Houston. (WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this slide was titled "George W. Bush." It has been fixed.</em>
1984 -- Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan gives a thumbs-up to supporters at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles as he celebrates his re-election, Nov. 6, 1984, with first lady Nancy Reagan at his side. (AP Photo/File)
1980 -- Ronald Reagan
President-elect Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy wave to well-wishers on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980 at Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles after his election victory. (AP Photo)
1976 -- Jimmy Carter
Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces his wife Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the national general election on November 2, 1976. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1972 -- Richard Nixon
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon meets at Camp David, Maryland, on November 13, 1972 to discuss the Vietnam situation with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (L) and Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr.(R), Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVE/Getty Images)
1968 -- Richard Nixon
President-elect Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, were a picture of joy at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Nov. 6, 1968, as he thanked campaign workers. At left are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon's fiance, Julie and her sister Tricia at center. (AP Photo)
1964 -- Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson proves he's a pretty good cowhand as he puts his horse, Lady B, through the paces of rounding up a Hereford yearling on his LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas, on November 4, 1964. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson)
1960 -- John F. Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy peeps over the shoulder of her father, Senator John F. Kennedy, as he gave her a piggy-back ride November 9, 1960 at the Kennedy residence in Hyannis Port, Mass. It was the first chance president-elect Kennedy had to relax with his daughter in weeks. (AP Photo)
1956 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon salute cheering workers and Republicans at GOP election headquarters in Washington, November 7, 1956, after Adlai Stevenson conceded. (AP Photo)
1952 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
President-elect Dwight Eisenhower and first lady-elect Mamie Eisenhower wave to the cheering, singing crowd in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in New York City on Nov. 5, 1952 after Gov. Adlai Stevenson conceded defeat. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
1948 -- Harry S. Truman
U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman" on November 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis' Union Station, "That is one for the books!" (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)
1944 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin Roosevelt greets a young admirer as he sits outside his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., on election night, November 7, 1944. Behind him stands his daughter, Mrs. Anna Roosevelt Boettinger and the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. (AP Photo)
1940 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) speaking to a crowd of 25,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 8, 1940, before his sweeping re-election for a third term. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
1936 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Republican Governor of Kansas and presidential candidate, Alfred Landon (1887 - 1987) greeting the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) (seated) prior to the presidential elections. Future United States President Harry S. Truman can been seen in the background. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1932 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York at his Hyde Park, N.Y. home November 6, 1932, seen at the conclusion of the arduous months of campaigning following his presidential nomination in Chicago. (AP Photo)
1928 -- Herbert Hoover
President-elect Herbert Hoover is seated at a table with wife, Lou, and joined by other family members on Nov. 9, 1928. Standing from left: Allan Hoover; son; Margaret Hoover, with husband, Herbert Hoover, Jr.,at right. Peggy Ann Hoover, daughter of Herbert Hoover Jr., sits with her grandmother. (AP Photo)
1924 -- Calvin Coolidge
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge are shown with their dog at the White House portico in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, 1924. (AP Photo)
1920 -- Warren Harding
Senator Warren Harding, with wife Florence and his father George, shown on Aug. 27, 1920. (AP Photo)
1916 -- Woodrow Wilson
Surrounded by crowds, President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first ball at a baseball game in Washington in this 1916 photo. (AP Photo)
1912 -- Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), the future American president, casts his vote while Governor of New Jersey, on Nov. 14, 1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)