Races to watch in battleground states:
What's at stake: 29 electoral votes
Romney's swing through Florida on Saturday -- the first day of in-person early voting there -- included a visit to a Republican county in the Panhandle (Escambia) where a huge crowd met him with chants of "10 more days," a Democratic county where he wants to cut into Obama's expected lead (Osceola), and a swing county (Pasco). For good reason.
Romney cannot afford to leave any base untouched. If he loses Florida, his chances of winning the presidency depend on sweeping nine other states, including Ohio and Nevada. Republicans, still bullish about victory, said, Romney can rely on a very strong showing in Polk County, a GOP stronghold, and edges in the swing county of Hillsborough as well as in Volusia County, home to Daytona and New Izmir Beach.
Florida has been considered challenging territory for Obama all year. But at Obama's headquarters in Chicago, his aides said last week that they believed they had at least a 50 percent shot, based on mail-in ballots, voter registrations and polling. A new wave of Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida is highly influential, Democrats say, along with younger Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
What's at stake: 4 electoral votes
On Obama's trip Saturday to Nashua, N.H., with the singer James Taylor in tow, he wooed a state that revels in its reputation for unpredictability. In a stop at a union hall, he said, "We don't know how this thing is going to play out." Obama won every county there in 2008, a feat that even Bill Clinton did not pull off in 1992 and 1996. But Obama's lead in polls has dwindled.
Romney's aides have been somewhat optimistic about his chances. He was the governor in Massachusetts next door, and his lakeside home is in Wolfeboro is in Carroll County, which he will need to win. He and his campaign have plied the state's two traditionally GOP-leaning counties in the south -- Rockingham and Hillsborough -- with attention since he announced his run in the Rockingham town of Stratham. His assertions that Obama has allowed the budget deficit and national debt to get out of control speaks to the state's long tradition of thrift.
New Hampshire has only four electoral votes, but they would make all the difference if Romney also wins Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio and Obama takes Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin. The state has extra resonance for Democrats: If Al Gore had won there, he would have been president.
What's at stake: 9 electoral votes
There is a potential outcome that has tantalized political addicts everywhere: that Colorado will become the new Florida, the state that decides it all. For it to come to that, Romney must win four of the most competitive states -- New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida and Wisconsin -- leaving Obama with Ohio and Iowa. That would give Romney 262 electoral votes to Obama's 267, leaving both in need of Colorado's nine.
In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat to win the state in 16 years by stealing the counties north and south of Boulder -- Jefferson and Larimer -- and Arapahoe County near Denver and by shaving down the Republican margin in conservative areas like Colorado Springs. Democrats are counting on Hispanic and young voters and what they say is a superior organization. Romney is trying to cut into Obama's advantage with Hispanics and hoping for support from military and evangelical voters.
What's at stake: 18 electoral votes
With so many electoral votes at stake, both candidates are treating the state as if they were running for governor. To win, Romney needs added strength in rural and suburban areas, where Obama drew more support in 2008 than did previous Democratic candidates. Last week, Romney held a rally in Defiance, Ohio, in a GOP-leaning county, one where he needs the margins to return to the levels seen in 2004. The results in Cincinnati, in Hamilton County, will be among the closest watched in the nation. The county supported Obama in 2008 -- the first time a Democrat won in four decades -- and is one of the most highly-competitive this year. Before Election Day, officials estimate that at least one-third of registered voters will have voted.
What's at stake: 6 electoral votes
No state among the battlegrounds is more sentimental and symbolic to Obama. Iowa christened his presidential candidacy in 2008; his victory in the caucuses there helped pave the way to his winning the Democratic nomination. Iowa's unemployment rate is significantly lower than the national average, but Obama has campaigned in the state as if his candidacy depended upon it. And perhaps it does.
Romney is looking for backup options if the battleground map does not tilt his way. And Iowa's electoral votes could be a critical piece to that puzzle. The suburban areas around Des Moines (Polk County) and Davenport (Scott County) are crucial for both candidates. The Des Moines Register's endorsement Saturday night could give Romney a boost. In its first GOP endorsement since Richard Nixon in 1972, the Register's editorial board said: "Voters should give Mitt Romney a chance to correct the nation's fiscal course and to implode the partisan gridlock that has shackled Washington and the rest of America."
Social conservatives are working to deliver a record turnout in northwestern Iowa. Democrats are taking steps to keep outpacing Republicans in early voting, which means Romney will have to deliver a strong performance on Election Day to win. Four years ago, Obama received fewer votes on Election Day than Sen. John McCain, but carried the state because of the ones he banked early.
What's at stake: 13 electoral votes
Virginia is vital to almost every one of Romney's paths to the White House if he does not win Ohio, which explains why he has spent so much time visiting the state, including two planned rallies on Sunday (a third was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy).
Obama was the first Democrat to win the state since 1964. The tide he rode among black voters in such places as Hampton, on the coast, is likely to roll again. And the northern part of the state, in the Washington area, is still considered Obama country.
Romney has focused much of his effort in areas like those around Norfolk, heavily populated with military personnel, where he asserts that Obama has allowed the Navy to wither, and in coal-mining country in the south, where he portrays Obama as hostile to the industry.
A run of polls in the late summer showed Obama to be on his way to establishing a real advantage, but in recent weeks the race has fallen into an effective tie. Romney's improving standing among undecided female voters after the debates -- which he stoked with an advertisement that sought to soften his stance against abortion -- made Obama's aides especially nervous. The president's campaign has been buoyed by recent indications that those wavering women in the north seem to be returning to his column, especially as Democrats remind them of the anti-abortion measures that state Republicans pursued this year.
What's at stake: 10 electoral votes
The 2008 election, when Obama carried the state by 14 percentage points, is a distant memory. The electorate is far more polarized, particularly after the contentious recall attempt of Gov. Scott Walker in June. The organization that Walker built to fend off the recall effort by labor unions is the muscle behind Romney's on-the-ground operation. Another factor is the pride that comes from native son Rep. Paul Ryan on the ticket. His hometown, Janesville, is a strong Democratic-leaning city, so any votes he wins from there could help GOP margins in a race that both sides agree seems more like 2000 and 2004, when George W. Bush lost by only a sliver. Romney is set to campaign in the state Monday, focusing on Milwaukee and the Waukesha County suburbs that offer the state's biggest GOP margins.
A day later, Obama is to visit Green Bay. In 2008, he turned many counties in the Fox River Valley from red to blue. Consider the results of Brown County: Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry by 10 percentage points, while four years later Obama defeated McCain by nearly the same margin.
The Romney campaign does not consider Wisconsin one of its best prospects, but a victory would break the Midwestern firewall that Obama is trying to build. And wins here and in Colorado would counterbalance a potential loss in Ohio.
NEW YORK TIMES