For Romney, Obama, long slog to nail-biter finish

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 9:45 am •  Published: November 4, 2012
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The money rolled in. Before it was over, the two sides and their allies had spent in excess of $2 billion.

With no primary opponent to worry about, Obama got an early start on softening up his opponent for the fall. One TV ad accused Romney of failing to stand up to "the voices of extremism" in his party. In another, a steelworker called Romney a "job destroyer" and compared his former private equity firm to a "vampire" that sucked the life out of companies.

The cumulative effect was reflected in polls showing that voters saw Obama, not Romney, as the candidate who best understood the concerns of the middle class.

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From Inauguration Day, Obama knew it would be hard to live up to the high expectations set during the heady days of his 2008 "hope and change" campaign to become the nation's first black president.

A few weeks into his presidency, he took stock of a country in economic crisis and acknowledged: "You know, I've got four years. ... If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."

By this summer, Obama had both the burden and blessing of a record to run on. The economy was sputtering along but hardly robust. The president's favorability ratings were higher than Romney's. But his job approval numbers hovered below 50 percent. The jobless rate remained above 8 percent, with each monthly unemployment report driving home that statistic anew.

If Obama's glass was half-full, Romney's was half-empty — actually, almost drained. "It's another hammer blow to the struggling middle-class families of America," Romney said when the jobs report came out in August. He spoke from Nevada, where the economic picture was particularly grim.

Obama played up 29 straight months that private employers had added jobs and surrounded himself at the White House with middle-class families making progress. "Those are our neighbors and families finding work," Obama said. "But, let's acknowledge, we've still got too many folks out there who are looking for work." No economic recovery since World War II had been weaker.

So the two candidates headed in, and out, of their nominating conventions wielding the same campaign arguments they'd been making all year, and still running about even in their support from voters. But Obama had the edge on another important yardstick:

Asked who they thought would win, voters went with Obama hands down.

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Romney had a rough September: His response to the deadly U.S. consulate attack in Libya hit a sour note. The release of a secretly recorded video that caught him saying that 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims fed into impressions that Romney wasn't looking out for ordinary Americans. The race started to feel like it was slipping away from him.

October's series of three campaign debates offered Romney his last, best chance to change the dynamic. And did it ever.

Romney turned in a commanding performance in the first debate, while Obama was lackluster and disengaged. The contrast was startling, and it reinvigorated the Republican candidate and his supporters.

"I had a bad night," Obama conceded, and he upped his game for the next two debates. That was enough to satisfy nervous Democrats that their candidate was truly in it to win it. But Romney still was feeling the energy when a most unlikely October surprise upended both sides' game plans in the home stretch of the campaign.

Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast and barreled ashore on a destructive path that temporarily overshadowed all else. It gave Obama a chance to jump into action as commander in chief and left Romney struggling to strike the right tone. At week's end, the final jobs report before Tuesday's election gave one last economic snapshot, showing the U.S. adding a solid 171,000 jobs and more than a half-million Americans joining the workforce. But the jobless rate was still higher than when Obama took office.

Said Obama: "We've made real progress."

Countered Romney: "This is not a time for America to settle."

For every argument the candidates made in person in their frenzied final days of campaigning, their messages played out many times over in an unending stream of political ads targeting voters in the nine battleground states that will determine which candidate ultimately gets to 270 electoral votes.

More than 915,000 presidential campaign ads have aired since June 1, 45 percent more than over the same period in 2008, according to a report by the Wesleyan Media Project. Those ads aired in far fewer states this year, meaning a smaller number of people have been targeted by a far larger advertising onslaught.

People like Paris Hilliard, 24, who turned out for an Obama rally in Springfield, Ohio, on Friday, and thinks Obama's on the right track.

"I knew it wasn't going to be an overnight fix," he said.

Not far away, 75-year-old Walter Myers said he knows far too many people looking for work to believe the improving statistics on joblessness.

On his chest was a sign: "Nobama."

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Kasie Hunt in Washington, Beth Fouhy in New York and Ann Sanner in Springfield, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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