By Ben Feller and Kasie Hunt/The Associated Press
WEST CHESTER, Ohio — Down to a fierce finish, President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney of scaring voters with lies on Friday, while the Republican challenger warned grimly of political paralysis and another recession if Obama reclaims the White House. Heading into the final weekend, the race’s last big report on the economy showed hiring picking up but millions still out of work.
“Four more days!” Romney supporters bellowed at a rally in Wisconsin. “Four more years!” Obama backers shouted as the president campaigned in Ohio.
With Ohio at the center of it all, the candidates sharpened their closing lines, both clutching to the mainstream middle while lashing out at one another. Virtually all of the nine homestretch battleground states were getting personal attention from the contenders or top members of their teams, and Romney was pressing hard to add Pennsylvania to the last-minute mix.
Romney drew the largest crowd of his years-long quest for the presidency at an Ohio rally attended by 18,000 people on a cold Friday night.
“We’re almost home,” a confident Romney, surrounded by family and more than a dozen Republican officials, told a sea of supporters. “One final push will get us there.”
Urgency could be felt all across the campaign, from the big and boisterous crowds to the running count that roughly 24 million people already have voted. Outside the White House, workers were setting the foundation for the inaugural viewing stand for Jan. 20. Lawyers from both camps girded for a fight should the election end up too close to call.
Obama, for the first time, personally assailed Romney over ads suggesting that automakers General Motors and Chrysler are adding jobs in China at the expense of auto-industry dependent Ohio. Both companies have called the ads untrue. The matter is sensitive in Ohio, perhaps the linchpin state of the election.
“I know we’re close to an election, but this isn’t a game,” Obama said from Hilliard, Ohio, a heavily Republican suburb of the capital city of Columbus. “These are people’s jobs. These are people’s lives. … You don’t scare hardworking Americans just to scare up some votes.”
For once, the intensely scrutinized monthly jobs report seemed overshadowed by the pace of the presidential race. It was unlikely to affect the outcome.
Employers added a better-than-expected 171,000 jobs in October, underscoring that the economy is improving. But the rate is still short of what will be needed to seriously shrink unemployment. The jobless rate ticked up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent — mainly because more people jumped back into the search for work.
No issue matters more to voters than the economy, the centerpiece of a Romney message called the closing case of his campaign.
He said an Obama presidency would mean more broken relations with Congress, showdowns over government shutdowns, a chilling effect on the economy and perhaps “another recession.”
“He has never led, never worked across the aisle, never truly understood how jobs are created in the economy,” said Romney, a former private equity firm executive, in a campaign stop in Wisconsin.
Later in Ohio, he declared: “I will not represent one party. I will represent one nation.”
Democrats sought to kick the legs out of Romney’s late-campaign theme of bipartisanship.
“Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his ‘severely conservative’ agenda is laughable,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Obama claimed he loved working with Republicans — when they agreed with him. His tone was scrappy.
“I don’t get tired,” he said in the longest days of the campaign. When Romney’s name drew boos, Obama blurted out: “Vote! Voting is the best revenge.”
While the politics intensified, real-life misery played out in the Northeast.
The death toll and anger kept climbing in the aftermath of the massive storm Sandy. Millions were without power, and many drivers could find no gasoline.
Obama noted at the top of his campaign speeches that he was still commanding the federal storm response. He also managed to tie it to the theme of his political bid. “We rise or fall as one nation and as one people,” he said, before launching directly to the economic recovery under his watch.
Polling shows the race remains a legitimate toss-up heading into the final days. But Romney still has the tougher path to victory because he must win more of the nine most-contested states to reach 270 electoral votes: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.
The dash for cash continued to the end. A fundraising email under Romney’s name asked for money to expand operations into other states and “redefine the landscape of this election.” An Obama fundraising pitch said final decisions were being made Saturday on where to direct the last campaign money. “It’s not too late,” it said.
Romney was making a late, concerted push into Pennsylvania, drawing jeers from Obama aides who called it desperation. Obama won the state comfortably in 2008. Romney appeared intent on another path to the presidency should he lose Ohio.
His foray into Pennsylvania is not folly. Unlike states that emphasize early voting, Pennsylvania will see most votes cast on Election Day. The state has not been saturated with political advertising, giving Romney and his supporting groups — still flush with cash — an opportunity to sway last-minute voters with a barrage of commercials. Obama is countering by buying commercial time in the state as well and is sending former President Bill Clinton to campaign Monday in Pittsburgh, Scranton and the Philadelphia area.
The candidates’ wives and running mates fanned out to the South, Midwest and West to cover more ground.
“Here’s what it comes down to: We can’t afford to wait four more years for real change to get us on the right track,” said the Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, rallying for votes in Montrose, Colo. “We only need to wait four more days.”
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden drew roaring support in Beloit, Wis., in a middle school near Ryan’s hometown.
Obama reached beyond the big cities of Ohio before heading back to the White House. Romney was headed into the weekend with a kickoff event for the finish, joining up with his running mate and their wives.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Julie Pace and Julie Carr Smyth in Hilliard, Ohio, Steve Peoples in Pataskala, Ohio, Daniel Sewell in Cincinnati, Ann Sanner in Springfield, Ohio, Matthew Daly in Beloit, Wis., Philip Elliott in Montrose, Colo., and Jim Kuhnhenn and Mark S. Smith in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Ben Feller on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BenFellerDC
Follow Kasie Hunt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kasie