PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Flush with cash, Mitt Romney plans to open a new front in the White House race by challenging President Barack Obama in upper Midwest states where he might not have dug in otherwise. Obama is intensifying his efforts to cast his Republican rival as out of touch, which he's already been working pretty hard at doing.
This is the beginning of the homestretch to Election Day, when everything in the two campaigns goes into overdrive and a September or October surprise could upend it all.
But this all has the whiff of politicking around the margins, too -- a tweak in state-by-state strategy here, a rhetorical detour there. The fact is that both candidates believe the campaign's direction is mostly settled and will be decided by a handful of unknowns.
With two months until the Nov. 6 vote, it remains remarkably close with a turbulent summer and back-to-back conventions seemingly doing little to shift the trajectory. Jobs and the weak economy still dominate. The latest unemployment rate, 8.1 percent, did nothing to change that. A rate finally dropping below 8 percent might have.
Romney is looking to expand the battleground map by trying to put in play states that have long voted for Democratic presidential nominees. Among them are the home states of the Republican ticket, Michigan for Romney and Wisconsin for Rep. Paul Ryan.
In the coming weeks, Romney's team is expected to pay for a heavy level of TV ads for Michigan and Wisconsin, either in hopes of winning them or to force Obama to spend precious campaign dollars to defend states he won by more than 10 percentage points in 2008. Polls in both states slightly favor Obama.
A super political action committee supporting Obama launched a new ad in Wisconsin Saturday.
The Priorities USA Action ad says challenger Romney is advocating tax policies that would increase the tax burden on middle-income families.
The ad is also running in Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Florida and Virginia.
In key states, public polling and internal surveys by Republicans and Democrats find Obama, who carried a number of typically Republican states in his 2008 victory, with slight leads. He may have more paths to victory in the state-by-state competition to rack up the 270 electoral votes needed.
Romney faces a series of built-in challenges that come with taking on an incumbent, and he has little margin for error. What he's got is more money to spend on drenching the airwaves, and an apparent if slight advantage in public opinion on the leading issue of the time, the economy.
His Virginia Beach, Virginia, rally Saturday and Obama's weekend bus tour in Florida underscored the sharp competition for those two states, among others.
If Romney got a bounce in public esteem and energy from the Republican National Convention, it was probably absorbed and overtaken by the Democratic convention that followed. But the convention was bookended by a report showing the national debt surpassing $16 trillion and by the dreary jobs numbers.
Barring the unforeseen, neither camp says much will change between now and Nov. 6.
Said White House senior adviser David Plouffe: "We're not expecting huge movement in this race all the way out to the next 60 days."
Informal Romney adviser Charlie Black agrees: "We're in a volatile period. But my guess is we'll settle back into an even race."
Still, there are some big developments ahead that could shake things up, most predictably the three presidential debates in October, plus one between the vice presidential running mates. Two more unemployment reports come out before the election. A foreign policy crisis could unfold over Iran, Syria or somewhere else, severe enough to change what the candidates talk about and what the voters want to know.
Both campaigns are hunkering down to sift through post-convention, fundraising hauls and other data to help them decide which states they can win and which seem hopeless. Outside groups backing each candidate are doing the same, no small matter considering their aggressive advertising building up -- or more commonly, tearing down -- a candidate.
Even before the conventions ended, there were shifts in strategy as Republican outside groups pulled up their advertising stakes in Pennsylvania and Michigan, while pouring an additional $13 million into the most competitive states.
"This is when the cards go on the table," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a top adviser to past Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry.
In the final two months, small headaches can be amplified and more voters pay attention, especially those whose minds are not made up. Obama and Romney both want to drive up turnout among their core supporters without alienating independents, who decide close races.
Obama will deploy his two chief Romney critics, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton, to states where they can try to narrow Romney's advantage with white working-class voters, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. He will dispatch San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the convention keynoter, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to states with many Hispanics, such as Colorado and Nevada.
Michelle Obama will step up her efforts to maintain or expand her husband's advantage with female voters. She and the president will get an assist from Georgetown University law school student Sandra Fluke, who emerged as a leader in the fight over access to contraception and addressed the convention.
Romney is counting on Ryan to validate him with working-class voters in the Midwest, and his wife, Ann, to help convince women that he's on their side.
Obama is imploring voters to give his policies more time to take hold and trying to capitalize on two advantages: Polls find he is well-liked and more apt than Romney to understand people's problems.
In speeches and in ads, Obama and his team will remind voters that the president was raised by a single mother and saddled with student loan debt. They'll argue that the president understands middle class economic struggles because he has lived them, implying that Romney, who grew up wealthy, does not. That was a strong theme of the party's convention.
But for the Romney team, says adviser Kevin Madden, "it's about performance, plain and simple," on the economy and jobs especially.
The Romney campaign came out with 15 ads Friday for eight battleground states.
In Colorado and Virginia, the ads stress defense cuts. In Iowa, where unemployment is relatively low, the message is about the national debt and business regulation.
Obama's team is increasingly confident in the president's prospects in Nevada and Colorado, largely because of his advantage among Hispanics and women, so they see the election probably coming down to Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
Party operatives say Obama appears strongest in Ohio, where the economy is improving and the auto bailout is popular. Virginia remains tight, but Democrats see a path to victory through increased minority registration and last week's state ruling that conservative former Rep. Virgil Goode would appear on Virginia's presidential ballot. The president's aides say Goode could take a percentage point or two of support away from Romney, which could tip the balance.
It's Florida that makes Democrats most nervous. Their troubles in the state, especially with its Jewish voters, only increased during the Democratic convention. The party scrambled to reinstate words in its platform recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital after the omission drew criticism from Republicans.
Romney, who is already issuing mail brochures in battleground states, is expected to sponsor mail or radio ads drawing attention to the issue in Broward County and West Palm Beach, heavily Jewish communities in south Florida.
The race also is tight in New Hampshire and Iowa, with both sides campaigning in those states in the last two days.
It seems of particular concern for Obama. He's been to Iowa 10 times this year. Democrats claim it's a sign that he sees Iowa as insurance in case he loses elsewhere.
Republican Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad sees it differently.
"Obama has been back here again and again and again," Branstad said Thursday. "He knows he's in trouble here."