LIMA, Ohio -– Mitt Romney's motorcade arrived at a large rally in the Cincinnati suburbs, 100 miles south of here, just as President Barack Obama touched down on Air Force One back at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, following a full day of his own events in the Buckeye State.
A few hours before Romney spoke to as many as 30,000 supporters at the largest rally of his campaign, Obama's top two advisers stood in a cinder block high school classroom here in this northwest Ohio city, after the president's final rally of the day.
If David Axelrod and David Plouffe were concerned by the prospect of tens of thousands of Romney supporters gathering downstate, they didn't show it. Big crowds are great. But a consistent lead in the polls is better. And Obama has had that. It has not been big for the last month, but he has not relinquished it.
And hours after the Romney supporters had gone home and the stage where he had spoken was being torn down, the latest poll to come out, from NBC News/Marist, showed Obama up, 51 percent to 45 percent in Ohio.
Plouffe, wearing a blue windbreaker jacket with the Camp David insignia and eyeglasses, argued that Romney has slipped in the past week in large part because local media have lambasted him for a misleading TV ad about Chrysler's decision to build Jeeps in China.
"It's two things: it reminds everybody in the state that one of eight jobs comes from the auto industry connected to it, that he opposed [the auto bailout in 2008], and now he's running an ad that's been as thoroughly discredited as anything we've probably seen in modern times," Plouffe said, perhaps a bit hyperbolically.
"We think it's a significant effect at the end," Plouffe said.
Axelrod jumped in as well, calling the Romney TV ad "a car wreck."
"I can't think of a worse way to finish a race," Axelrod said. "There isn't anybody who has watched this who could say, yeah, this is really working out well for those Romney guys."
Obama himself also hammered Romney over the TV ad Friday, and at one point paused mid-sentence during his first speech of the day, outside Columbus, to give the crowd time to yell out and call Romney a liar.
"You know that I tell the truth," Obama told the crowd.
But as Obama moves on to rallies beyond Ohio for the last weekend of campaigning –- with stops in Wisconsin, Iowa and Virginia on Saturday and in New Hampshire, Florida and Colorado on Sunday -– he will rely more on the broader core of a new stump speech that he has unveiled over the past two days.
At the heart of his closing argument speech is a two-punch attack: an indignant counter-punch at Romney's claim to be the agent of change in this election, and a turn to a populist message that in some ways echoes themes of his 2008 candidacy that have often been absent from this campaign.
Romney's assertion of control over the "change" label has irked the Obama campaign, and it showed on Friday. Romney, at his Friday night rally, repeated a line that has become a mantra for him in the last few weeks.
"Are you finally ready for real change?" the Republican said.
When The Huffington Post brought up Romney's move to seize the change mantle to Axelrod, the mild-mannered strategist wrinkled up his nose in irritation.
"It's preposterous," he said. Obama, he said, wanted to confront that idea "head-on."
And so the president sought Friday to block Romney's advance on that front, weaving the theme throughout his stump speech.
"He says suddenly … he’s the candidate of change," Obama said, as the crowd of roughly 3,800 inside the Lima Senior High School gymnasium laughed. "But we know what change looks like, and what he’s trying to sell, that ain’t it. It ain’t it."
Obama mentioned the word "change" 20 times in Lima, using it to pivot to a discussion of Romney's auto ad, and mocking Romney's policy proposals as a false imitation of change, then casting his own first term as president as one in which "real change" took place.
Obama used the change theme to move on to his closing riff, a fiery populist screed aimed at putting himself in the place of advocate for the little man.
"The folks at the very top in this country, they don't need another champion in Washington. They’ve got lobbyists. They’ve got PACs. They’ve always got a seat at the table. They’ll always have access. They’ll always have influence in Congress," Obama said during his midday rally at Springfield High School. "The cooks and the waiters, and the cleaning staff working overtime in some Vegas hotel, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kids to college -- they need a champion."
Change wasn't the only theme that Obama hammered. He also used the term "fight" or "fighting" over a dozen times at each stop Friday.
Obama said that he wants to be a bipartisan leader, but that he will not work with others if it means compromising on certain things.
"Look, I’m a very nice guy, people will tell you," Obama said wryly. "I really am. But if the price of peace in Washington is cutting deals that kicks students off of financial aid, or getting rid of funding for Planned Parenthood, or let insurance companies discriminate against people with preexisting conditions, or eliminate health care for millions of folks on Medicaid who are elderly or disabled or poor -- I’m not going to make that deal. I’ll fight against that deal."
"That's not change. That's surrender to a status quo that has hurt too many American families," he said. "And I’m not going along with it. I’m not going along with it."
The crowd's cheers rose to a crescendo in the high school gym as Obama whipped himself, and the audience, into a frenzy befitting the last few days of an intense competition for the presidency. Greg Schultz, the state director in Ohio for the Obama campaign, looked nodded approvingly with a smile toward White House aides Jon Favreau, the president's speech writer, and Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
"I am a long ways away from giving up on this fight. I got a lot of fight left in me," Obama said.
An audience member shouted out: "You’re not too tired?"
"I don’t get tired. I don’t grow weary," Obama responded. "I hope you aren’t tired either, Ohio."
The Obama campaign was apparently so confident that Axelrod let himself relax perhaps a bit too much in explaining to reporters how energized the president was to push through the last few days of the campaign.
"I've known him for 20 years," Axelrod said. "We've worked closely for 10 years. I've never seen him more exhilarated than he is right now. He believes in what he's doing. He believes in what he's fighting for.
"You know, you can see in the speech that he's delivering that he, you know, that he, this is coming from his loins," Axelrod said.
The reporters gathered around Axelrod tittered, and he was visibly thrown off balance for a moment. He tried to recover quickly by joking about the comment.
"And uh -- I just wanted to say loins. I wanted to see if I could get loins in the story," he said.
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