By David Espo and Kasie Hunt/The Associated Press
DOSWELL, Va. — Five days before the election, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama vied forcefully for the mantle of change Thursday in a country thirsting for it after a painful recession and uneven recovery, pressing intense closing arguments in their unpredictably close race for the White House. Early voting topped 22 million ballots.
Republicans launched a late push in Pennsylvania, long viewed as safe for Obama. The party announced a $3 million advertising campaign that told voters who backed the president four years ago, “it’s OK to make a change.” Romney and running mate Paul Ryan both announced weekend visits to the state.
The Obama campaign was increasing its ad buy in Pennsylvania following the RNC’s move, an aide said while declining to cite how just much the campaign planned to spend.
A three-day lull that followed Superstorm Sandy ended abruptly, the president campaigning briskly across three battleground states and Romney piling up three stops in a fourth. The Republican also attacked with a tough new Spanish-language television ad in Florida showing Venezuela’s leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, and Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, saying they would vote for Obama.
The storm intruded once again into the race, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed the president in a statement that said Sandy, which devastated his city, could be evidence of climate change.
Of the two White House rivals, Bloomberg wrote, “One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”
The ever-present polls charted a close race for the popular vote, and a series of tight battleground surveys suggested neither man could be confident of success in the competition for the 270 electoral votes that will decide the winner.
The presidential race aside, the two parties battled for control of the Senate in a series of 10 or more competitive campaigns. The possibility of a 50-50 tie loomed, or even a more unsettled outcome if former Gov. Angus King of Maine, an independent, wins a three-way race and becomes majority-maker.
Obama’s aides left North Carolina off the president’s itinerary in the campaign’s final days, a decision that Republicans trumpeted as a virtual concession of the state.
Yet Romney’s team omitted Ohio and Wisconsin from a list of battlegrounds where they claimed narrow advantage.
The Republican National Committee ad in Pennsylvania aired earlier in other areas of the country. Far less aggressive than many of the GOP attacks on the president, it said Obama took office promising economic improvement but had failed to deliver. “He tried. You tried. It’s OK to make a change,” says the announcer.
Republicans said the decision for Romney and Ryan to campaign in the state reflected late momentum, while Democrats said it was mere desperation.
“It is an improbable uphill climb for Mitt Romney to win a state where he has never been up in a single poll, he has no ground game and we have a voter registration advantage of more than 1 million people,” said Jennifer Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman.
Romney and his allies also made late investments in Minnesota and Michigan, states that went comfortably for Obama in 2008 but poll much closer four years later.
In a possible boost for Obama, government and private sources churned out a spate of encouraging snapshots on the economy, long the dominant issue in the race. Reports on home prices, worker productivity, auto sales, construction spending, manufacturing and retail sales suggested the recovery was picking up its pace, and a measurement of consumer confidence rose to its highest level since February of 2008, nearly five years ago.
Still, none of the day’s measurements packed the political significance of the campaign’s final report on unemployment, due out Friday. Joblessness was measured at 7.8 percent in September, falling below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office.
Unemployment alone explained the competition to be the candidate of change, the slogan Obama memorably made his own in 2008 and struggles to hold now.
“Real Change On Day One,” read a huge banner at Romney’s first appearance of the day, in Roanoke, Va., and the same on a sign on the podium where he spoke in Doswell.
“This is a time for greatness. This is a time for big change, for real change,” said the former Massachusetts governor, a successful businessman who says his background gives him the know-how to enact policies that will help create jobs. “I’m going to make real changes. I’m going to get this economy going, from day one we’re making changes.”
He and his running mate also poked at Obama’s proposal to create a Department of Business by merging several existing agencies, including the Commerce Department, and the Republican campaign released a television ad on the subject.
“I don’t think adding a new chair in his Cabinet will help add millions of jobs on Main Street,” jabbed Romney.
To dramatize his economy-based appeal, the Republican challenger also stopped by Bill’s Barbecue, a decades-old restaurant in Richmond that closed its doors during the long recession. Walking inside past the “Do Not Enter” signs, he asked owner Rhoda Elliott what had happened.
“Usually when we have a small hiccup in the economy, they go from the white cloth, which is Morton’s and those, and then they — we’re the next step, and so we usually fare pretty good. But this one lasted so long they went down the next step, and that’s where it is right now,” said Elliott.
“Yeah. Yeah. Taco Bell,” Romney interjected, offering an example of a more down-market option.
Obama seemed intent on making up for lost campaign time after a three-day turn as hands-on commander of the federal response to Sandy, although aides stressed he remained in touch with the administration’s point man, FEMA Director Craig Fugate, and local officials.
One day after touring storm-battered New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, he walked off Air Force One in Green Bay, Wis., wearing a leather bomber jacket bearing the presidential seal and promptly lit into Romney.
In the campaign’s final weeks, his rival “has been using all his talents as a salesman to dress up” policies that led to the nation’s economic woes. “And he is offering them up as change,” Obama said.
“What the governor is offering sure ain’t change. Giving more power back to the biggest banks isn’t change. Leaving millions without health insurance isn’t change. Another $5 trillion tax cut that favors the wealthy isn’t change. Turning Medicare into a voucher is change, but we don’t want that change,” he said.
The president’s campaign went up with a new ad featuring Collin Powell endorsing the president. “I think we ought to keep on the track we’re on,” says the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
Officials said the ad would run in 10 states, including Minnesota, one of the states where Romney and his GOP allies launched late advertising.
A separate Obama commercial had a more limited exposure — and a harsher message. Aimed at voters in Michigan and Ohio, it cites independent fact-checkers and top executives from Chrysler and General Motors to rebut Romney’s recent ads that suggest auto jobs are moving to China from the United States.
Both campaigns invested heavily in early voting, and more than 3.1 million had already been cast in Florida alone. None will be counted until Election Day.
Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy in New York, Stephen Ohlemacher and Josh Lederman in Washington, Steve Peoples in Virginia and Julie Pace in Wisconsin contributed to this story. Espo reported from Washington.