WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney focused on their closing appeal to voters as they entered the final stretch of an excruciatingly close race for the White House. Obama stressed that voters simply cannot trust Romney and the Republican nominee warned of bleak times ahead should the president be re-elected.
With polls showing the race virtually tied nationally and in some of the key states, both candidates claimed a growing edge as they sought to sway the small pool of undecided voters while imploring their millions of supporters to vote, particularly in key battleground states such as Ohio and Iowa were early voting is already under way.
Obama was planning to cover 5,300 miles (8,500 kilometres) on Wednesday in the busiest single day of his re-election bid. He was travelling from Washington to Iowa, Colorado, California and Nevada, and then overnight to Florida. It was the first time Obama was spending the night on Air Force One for a domestic trip but far from unprecedented by incumbents scrambling to keep their job.
Obama was holding rallies from morning to night, appearing on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and calling some voters from the plane. It was the first half of a two-day trip that will see him going to Florida, Virginia and Ohio on Thursday with a stop sandwiched in for him to cast his vote early in Chicago.
Romney, too, was picking up the pace. He was campaigning Wednesday in Reno, Nevada, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before a three-stop campaign in Ohio on Thursday.
Setting up for a frenetic finish, both campaigns sought to show they had enthusiasm and organization on their side even as polls showed an up-for-grabs race.
At the majestic Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado late Tuesday, Romney said Obama's promise of more of the same is "why he's slipping and it's why we're gaining."
He cast the race as moving his way during a rally of up to 10,000 at the amphitheatre, a stunning setting cut into mountain rocks outside Denver.
"His is a status quo candidacy," Romney said of Obama earlier Tuesday as he teamed with running mate Paul Ryan at a rally in Henderson, Nevada.
The challenger told the large, cheering crowd in Henderson that Obama wants a new term for the same policies that have produced slow economic growth and high unemployment for four long years.
Obama's campaign insisted that the president was holding on to a slight lead in most of the nine battleground states that do not reliably vote Republican or Democratic and will decide the Nov. 6 election. These states are Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and New Hampshire. The U.S. president is not chosen according to the popular nationwide vote but in state-by-state contests.
"We have the ball, we have the lead," Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod insisted.
Obama's challenge is to convince voters who may be hurting financially that he is better qualified to lead the country back to economic prosperity than Romney, who made a fortune as the head of a private equity firm. Romney has exuded confidence on the campaign trail following his strong performance in the first debate on Oct. 3.
The Obama campaign had clearly heard the complaint that the president had, after more than a year of speeches, failed to articulate his second-term vision. Obama's team produced a 20-page booklet called the "Blueprint for America's Future" outlining his proposals and promised to distribute millions of copies. Obama himself held it up at two speeches on Tuesday. The plan includes spending more on education, boosting U.S. manufacturing jobs and raising taxes on the wealthy
Romney's aides dismissed Obama's booklet as nothing new, and the former Massachusetts governor said of the president, "His vision for the future is a repeat of the past."
In the closing phase, Obama is trying to capitalize on polls that show voters see the president as more trustworthy than Romney. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last week showed 55 per cent of likely voters said Obama is "honest and trustworthy" compared to 47 per cent who felt that way about Romney.
The president has spiced his rhetoric with humour to temper his underlying charge — that Romney is lying about what he would do as president.
"We joke about Gov. Romney being all over the map, but it speaks to something important — it speaks of trust," Obama said at a rally with Vice-President Joe Biden in Dayton, Ohio. "Trust matters. You want to know that the person who's applying to be your president and commander in chief is trustworthy, that he means what he says."
Obama's remarks came after Monday night's third and final presidential debate. Romney presented a more centrist approach on foreign policy during the debate.
Romney largely expressed agreement with how Obama has conducted U.S. foreign policy. He dramatically shifted his position and agreed with the president that all U.S. forces should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Romney previously had criticized Obama for setting such a date for withdrawal, saying he was giving the Taliban insurgency and its al-Qaida allies a date after which the militants could begin a drive to retake the country. Romney also dropped the conditions he had set for troop withdrawal.
By abruptly moderating his foreign policy positions, Romney was hoping to neutralize one of Obama's main strengths. But the Republican's performance gave the Obama campaign more ammunition to allege that Romney is willing to shift from or lose his more conservative positions to satisfy his more mainstream constituents.
Romney softer tone has helped him make up some of the gender gap that has given Obama an edge in many of the battleground states. But Romney could face some trouble with women voters over comments from Indiana Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who in a Tuesday night debate with his Democratic opponent said that when a woman is impregnated during a rape, "it's something God intended."
Romney's campaign said late Tuesday that he "disagrees" with Mourdock but wouldn't say whether the campaign would ask him to stop airing a TV ad that Romney cut for Mourdock earlier this week.
Two months ago, embattled Missouri Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin said during a TV interview that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape."
Since his comment, Akin has apologized repeatedly but has refused to leave the race despite calls to do so by leaders of his own party, including Romney.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Josh Lederman in Washington, Philip Elliott in Denver, Kasie Hunt in Morrison, Colorado, and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Ken Thomas and Julie Pace contributed to this report.