(CBS/AP) Despite the fact that the presidential election is days away, the scene on the campaign trail Wednesday was remarkably civil.
President Obama cancelled campaign events to tour storm damage with New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie; Mitt Romney offered up an optimistic vision of the future at a campaign stop in Florida, opting to leave out his usual attacks on the president.
Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted: What has been a remarkable run of storm-related civility is now coming to an end. Mr. Obama is returning to the campaign trail Thursday with stops in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado, while Romney holds a trio of campaign events in Virginia. Asked if Romney will sharpen his tone Thursday, the Romney campaign told CBS News that Americans can expect the sort of tone that one would expect "six days before an election" - that is, a nastier one than we've seen in the wake of Sandy. (Or, to put it in campaign speak, you can expect Romney to offer "contrasts" that spotlight "what the president hasn't done.")
Mr. Obama also looks to be getting back to his anti-Romney message: A release from his campaign said he plans to "highlight his second-term agenda to grow our economy from the middle out, not the top down."
The last few days are widely seen as having done Romney no favors: While the president had the opportunity to look like a strong leader in the wake of Sandy's devastation, Romney was left to hold awkward events stuck somewhere between campaign stop and storm relief effort.
The storm interrupted the Romney camp's argument that the GOP candidate had the momentum and was closing in on the president in the battleground states, and ate up valuable news coverage at a time when the GOP candidate was counting on using the media to make his closing case to the American people. One poll, meanwhile, showed that 78 percent of Americans viewed Mr. Obama's handling of the storm positively.
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In an apparent attempt to reboot its argument that Romney has momentum, the Romney campaign and the outside groups supporting it announced they are running ads in states where Mr. Obama was supposed to be safe: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota.
Though polls in all three states have showed the race tightening, they are undeniably a stretch for Romney: Asked Wednesday if his candidate was really contesting them, Romney campaign senior adviser Russ Schriefer responded, "Can we win all of them? Probably not. But can we win some of them? I think so." Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod, meanwhile, said he is so confident that the president will hang onto the three states that he will shave his moustache "of 40 years" if any of them turn red.
Though there is a general consensus that the Romney effort is a "head fake," in the words of Pennsylvania politics expert Keegan Gibson, it's worth noting that Sandy has caused headaches in Pennsylvania - and Mr. Obama is counting on massive turnout in that city.
The divergence in perspectives extended to the campaigns' dueling conference calls on Wednesday. The Obama camp was full of zingers: "We have the math, and they have the myth," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, adding: "The Romney campaign is trying to sell illusion and delusion." The Romney camp went with optimism: The Romney campaign has "expanded the map" and kept Obama from competing in Indiana and other states where he was competitive or victorious in 2008.
Both campaigns offered up a flood of early voting numbers to argue that their candidate is on the cusp of a clear victory, and pointed to what they said were overwhelming weaknesses in the opposition. (The president, the Romney camp gleefully noted, wasn't breaking 50 percent support in many national or battleground polls; Romney, the Obama camp said, has been reduced to a "Hail Mary" attempt to expand the map because he "hasn't put away a single battleground state.")
Here's the simple truth: The race is tight. National polls are even, and all of the battleground states remain within reach for both candidates. Wednesday's Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll showed Mr. Obama maintaining a small edge in the key battleground of Ohio, while two other hotly contested states, Florida and Virginia, where tossups.
It's difficult, but not impossible, for Romney to get to the 270 necessary electoral votes without Ohio. But his campaign clearly doesn't want to travel that narrow electoral path, and it is battling hard for the Buckeye State.
One aspect of that effort may have backfired: Romney's attempt to suggest that Mr. Obama is responsible for shipping Jeep jobs to China was met with derision not just by fact checkers and the Obama campaign but by the auto industry itself. The big question is whether the negative response to the argument overwhelms its message that the president isn't protecting Ohio jobs - a potentially resonant argument to the working-class voters the president needs to take the state. Both presidential candidates will campaign in Ohio on Friday.
If Romney can't close the apparent gap in Ohio, he'll almost certainly need to take Wisconsin - a state Mr. Obama won by 14 points four years ago, but which has emerged as a key battleground this year. Mr. Obama got some good news out of that state on Wednesday, when a Marquette University Law School poll found the president with a 51 percent to 43 percent lead. (Marquette showed the candidates effectively tied on October 17.)
If Mr. Obama wins Ohio, Wisconsin and either Nevada or Iowa - along with all the states he is expected to win - he'll have the electoral votes he needs, even if Romney runs the table in the rest of the battleground states. Polls show Mr. Obama with narrow leads in both Nevada and Iowa, though the Romney campaign argues the early vote numbers suggest they are well positioned for victory.
Mr. Obama's lead in Ohio and Wisconsin suggests that Romney, whose only clear battleground lead is in North Carolina, has a narrower path to victory than the president. (In addition to the seven states discussed above, CBS News considers Colorado and New Hampshire to be battlegrounds.) But the battleground states are so close that a small surge by Romney could put him over the top in a whole bunch of them - including the two Midwestern states that are now functioning as the president's firewall.
The Romney campaign said Wednesday it was confident that its closing message of "real change" will resonate with Americans as they refocus on the race after Sandy and make their final conclusions about the candidates.
"This is a change election. Voters are looking for change, they aren't happy with the way things have gone over the last four years," said Schriefer, the Romney adviser. He added: "Governor Romney is the change candidate."