Obama and Romney in the home stretch
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent the weekend darting between key battlegrounds in a frenzied drive for votes. The final road to tomorrow's ballot is filled with anxiety and more than a little relief
In the bitter final days of the campaign, "hope" and "change" have made a comeback - at least in President Barack Obama's closing argument.
As he criss-crosses the Midwestern battlegrounds in his shirt sleeves, Obama is firing up supporters with the rallying cry of his 2008 campaign that has not been a major theme of his stump speech for months.
Republicans are "betting on cynicism", Obama told a crowd in Mentor, Ohio, on Saturday, where he declared "my bet is on hope". The word "change" appeared in his morning speech almost two dozen times.
Obama's message is hitting home with his audience as his rhetorical arc bends back to its origins. "We know what change is," he said on Saturday, his voice hoarse as a crowd in a high school gym thundered its applause. "We know what the future requires."
Since they ushered Obama into office, hope and change have taken a beating. Hard economic times, intransigence in Washington and acrimony made it easy to mock the promises of 2008.
"How's that hopey-changey stuff workin' out for ya?" former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin asked two years after her GOP ticket lost.
"Keep the change" bumper stickers proliferated.
Obama resurrected the idea in his re-election kick-off, saying nothing was more powerful than voices calling for change, but then he set about preaching a workman-like message.
He railed against Republican ideals. He touted specific accomplishments, tailoring speeches for targeted demographics.
But even before Mitt Romney began talking about the "big change" he would bring to Washington, Obama and his speechwriters were planning to return to the overarching message.
When he did, the nature of change had clearly changed a bit, defined now partly by what Romney says and does. Cutting taxes for the wealthy, withholding policy details and siding with the right wing of the party don't constitute change, Obama says.
"In this campaign, he's tried as hard as he can to repackage these bad ideas and offer them up as change," Obama said of Romney on Saturday. "Now suddenly he's the candidate of change. But we know what change looks like, and what he's trying to sell, that ain't it."
Since he unveiled his closing argument on Thursday, the reviews have been mixed.
"There's a lot of 'hope and change' back in his remarks that don't acknowledge the reality of how he's governed the past four years," said Kristen Kukowski, of the Republican National Committee. "Basically, after four years, they are just words."
Longtime supporters love it, though.
"Ohio, my bet is on you," said Mary Richardson, a retiree and Obama volunteer who attended the rally in Mentor. "My bet is on hope. My bet is on the decency and goodness of the American people, and my fight is for you."
Romney's renewed optimism
From an airport runway on a cold New Hampshire morning, Mitt Romney faced 2,000 supporters and delivered the same speech he had given the day before - three times on the day before, actually.
Romney told his supporters on Saturday: "I won't just represent one party, I'll represent one nation."
His stump speech is a carefully crafted 15 minutes that opens a window into campaign strategy. For the Republican nominee, it is an evolving tool that has shifted sharply in recent weeks to appeal to the political centre.
Let there be no doubt that Romney, who once described himself as "severely conservative", has been aggressively courting the narrow slice of undecided voters — largely women and moderates — who have yet to settle on a candidate.
There has been a renewed energy to Romney's rallies: a crackling sense of excitement, and genuine optimism that the Republican candidate could actually defeat Barack Obama. But when Romney retreats to his campaign plane with his aides and his wife, Ann, there is now a hint of something else: relief.
This has been a long journey for Romney and his team, a corps of aides that first came together for Romney's gubernatorial run in 2002 and expanded in 2006 as he planned his first run for president. At first they travelled commercially with the candidate; these days some have essentially moved onto the campaign plane, a second home of sorts as they shuttle from hotel to hotel.
On Saturday, as Romney flew from New Hampshire to Iowa, there were new additions to the flight manifest: half a dozen top aides who escaped his Boston headquarters to spend the final days with Romney on the road.
Among the newcomers were Mike Leavitt, the head of Romney's transition team, a job he was chosen for in part because of his "Zen effect" on the candidate and his team.
For months, Romney has spent his flights working on his iPad, scrolling through policy briefings, revising his speeches and jotting his thoughts in a campaign journal. But those tasks are mostly complete.
Rejoining her husband on the campaign trail after her last solo events on Friday, Ann Romney strolled down the aisle on Saturday offering pies to Secret Service agents and the media.
The grandmother of 18, who has spoken openly about her struggles with multiple sclerosis, looked refreshed despite the couple's 1am arrival in New Hampshire. She had limped on the short walk from the plane to the motorcade with her husband and sounded a touch wistful as she talked about her emotional last speech in which she said she had heard the "voices and passion of the people out there that are really hurting".
But there was also that note of relief. "It's been long. It's been a long road," Ann said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press