Battleground issues drive the campaign message in final stretch

Oct. 24, 2012: Mitt Romney and President Obama are shown campaigning at separate events in Nevada.

Oct. 24, 2012: Mitt Romney and President Obama are shown campaigning at separate events in Nevada.  (AP)

The final weeks of the presidential race have come down to a handful of state-level battles, in which both campaigns have finely honed their messages on near-and-dear issues in hopes of convincing the last, undecided voters.

The road to the White House is essentially a final frenzied tour through Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. In these states, Mitt Romney and President Obama are separated by less than 3 percentage points, according to an averaging of polls by the website RealClearPolitics. States like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan are also close, but the above battlegrounds are the bona fide toss-ups -- and the candidates are taking pains to address each and every issue that hits home in those states. 

Maybe the so-called budget "sequester" -- mandatory budget cuts that will erode defense spending unless averted -- doesn't mean much to someone in rural Nebraska, but in defense contractor-heavy Virginia, it's all the campaigns are talking about. And housing, while an issue across the country, is pivotal in Florida where the housing market has pummeled the state. 

Here's a look at what local issues could end up deciding the 2012 presidential race: 

In Virginia, Obama and Romney are each promising they can avert looming military cuts that would hurt a local economy dependent on defense contracts.

“I will not cut our military,” Romney said during a rally last month in the Virginia Tidewater region, home to military bases and a large veteran population. “You listened to … talk about the cuts the president has put in place for our military. It’s unthinkable to Virginia.”

The Romney campaign also has run ads in that region and in northern Virginia that claim the cuts will “weaken national security,” in addition to eliminating at least 130,000 jobs.

The Obama campaign has reminded voters the Republican-controlled House, which includes Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, voted in favor of the cuts -- or rather, the debt-ceiling deal which set up a committee to cut the deficit and created the mandatory cuts as a fallback. And during a recent stop in Virginia Beach, the president widened his pitch by vowing to help returning veterans and subtly reminding voters that state Republican lawmakers this year proposed controversial legislation on women’s reproductive issues.

“No one who fights for this country should fight for a job or roof over their heads when they come home,” the president said.

Latest poll reading: Edge to Romney

In Colorado, the race boils down to a fight for roughly 100,000 undecided voters – largely independents and women who support abortion rights.

The demographics -- including the 21 percent of the population who are Hispanics and who helped Obama win the state in 2008 -- still appear to favor Obama. But the president’s populist message that works so well with working-class Midwestern voters appears less attractive this time in Colorado -- a largely affluent, non-union state.   

Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden said Tuesday his candidate is also addressing such “kitchen table” issues as unemployment and rising energy and health care costs, but with a more clear-cut plan.

“We feel really good about Colorado,” he said.

Latest poll reading: Virtually tied

Florida is a classic battleground state in which Romney has recently taken a small lead. With South Florida and the large immigrant population in metropolitan Miami most likely voting Democrat and the Gulf Coast leaning toward Romney, the candidates have focused on voters in the central region and the state’s severe housing-mortgage crisis.

Vice President Biden last week touted an administration plan that makes banks provide mortgage relief to non-delinquent homeowners and argued the housing industry is making a recovery.

“No state has been devastated more by housing than this state,” he said at a rally in St. Augustine. “Housing starts, they're at their highest rate since July of 2008, and they say America is in decline.”

The Tampa Bay Times, the state’s largest newspaper, has endorsed the president, while the rival Orlando Sentinel supports Romney, after backing Obama in 2008.

Latest poll reading: Edge to Romney

Iowa also voted for Obama in 2008 and, as in years past, remains a major part of the presidential campaign landscape.

The president attended the state fair this summer and returned this week with essentially the same working-class pitch, but with more attacks on Romney.

He said during a rally in Davenport that Romney's five-point plan is really only a "one-point" plan that serves the wealthiest Americans and that he will "stick the middle class with the bill." Obama also suggested the Republican presidential nominee is not supportive of teachers or auto workers. In addition, the president has repeatedly argued Romney was against his taxpayer-funded bailout of the U.S. auto industry.

Latest poll reading: Edge to Obama

Nevada continues to struggle under a housing crisis and high unemployment, which at 11.8 percent is the highest in the country.

Romney on Tuesday promised to cut in half the state’s jobless rate and warned potential voters that another four years of Obama will not improve the state’s foreclosure rate -- the fifth-highest in the country.

“If  (Obama’s) re-elected I’m convinced you’re going to see the values of your homes continue to bump along in the basement, and you’re going to find it hard to get a mortgage,” Romney said at rally in suburban Las Vegas.  

Obama appears focused on winning Nevada through the Hispanic vote, considering they make up 27 percent of the state's population.  

He told the Des Moines (Iowa) Register that Hispanic voters nationwide might swing the race for him because Mitt Romney and other Republicans have “so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.” Romney's campaign accused the president of taking the Hispanic vote "for granted." 

Latest poll reading: Edge to Obama

Wisconsin also voted for Obama in 2008, but Republicans have since become a stronger presence – with Republican Gov. Scott Walker limiting union bargaining agreements for state employees and surviving a recall election. Wisconsin also is the political starting ground for Ryan and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

But the Midwestern state also has ties to the auto industry and a healthy economy with a low unemployment rate, which could also help Obama.

Both parties expect a strong voter turnout, driven in large part by a close and engaging Senate race between Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin and former four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Latest poll reading: Edge to Obama

New Hampshire largely escaped the financial crisis that hit Nevada and much of the rest of the country during Obama’s first term, which could help the president again win the state. However, the New England mentality of self-reliance could help Romney, who is expected to do well, considering he was governor of neighboring Massachusetts.

Trying to win the women vote in the state, the president last week tried to tie Romney to the Republican-led state Legislature that also recently considered several measure related to women’s reproductive issues.

Obama’s scheduled appearance Saturday marks the sixth time he has visited the state during this election cycle.

Latest poll reading: Edge to Obama

Ohio remains the pivotal battleground state, with no Republican having won the White House without winning the state.

The deciding factor might well be demographics more than issues. In a state where roughly one-in-eight jobs is related to the auto industry, Obama could do well with blue-collar, union workers and with women. However, Romney has pulled nearly even with Obama in recent polls. 

Looking for the auto-industry advantage, it's no accident that Obama has been invoking an op-ed Romney once wrote that was titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Despite Obama's claims, though, the 2008 column did advocate for helping the auto industry with government guarantees. 

Latest poll reading: Edge to Obama

* Poll readings based on RealClearPolitics poll averages