WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney's plan for victory boils down to this: Convince independent voters he'll change Washington, stoke Republican enthusiasm and avoid unforced errors.
The Republican nominee's path to reaching the necessary 270 electoral votes cuts straight through Rust Belt states. He must stop President Barack Obama from sweeping Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — or win Democratic-tilting Pennsylvania, where he's making a last-ditch effort while prevailing in most other competitive states.
"President Obama promised change, but he could not deliver it. I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it," the former Massachusetts governor told the cheering crowd of thousands Friday, making his closing argument — that he can do what he argues Obama didn't: change the tone in hyper-partisan Washington.
In the final days, Romney is employing a three-pronged approach designed to take advantage of anti-Obama sentiment coursing through the GOP and a general national malaise about where the country is heading at a time of economic sluggishness. The goal: boost turn out Tuesday in a race that polls show is tight both nationally and in the nine states considered the most competitive.
Romney's team is publicly confident.
"We believe Mitt Romney will be the next president of the United States. We feel we are in a very, very good place," Romney strategist Russ Schriefer says, arguing that momentum is on his candidate's side.
Obama's team disagrees. They say Romney is running a desperate campaign as he hunts for a state-by-state path toward the magic number of Electoral College votes.
Over the past few days, it's become clear that Romney is trying to build a winning path with or without Ohio's 18 electoral votes. Obama has had a slight but persistent edge in most polls. No Republican candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio.
Aides say they're focused on two routes. Both make the big assumption that Romney will sweep North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, three battleground states Republicans argue are most likely to go Romney's way and the Republican seemingly must win to have a shot at the White House. Beyond that, one path calls for winning Ohio and either Colorado or Iowa; the other calls for winning Colorado and Iowa, and then either New Hampshire or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, where he holds a last-minute rally Sunday in the vote-rich southeastern part of the state.
As he travels to most of those states as the campaign wanes, Romney is making a pitch aimed primarily at the sliver of undecided and independent voters who could tip the balance in a tight race. He's casting himself as the candidate who will change the status quo and work across the aisle to get things done. Aides said polling during the debates showed independents responding favorably to Romney's comments of bipartisanship.
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