JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's crunch time in the 2012 presidential campaign, but at least in public, Mitt Romney is hardly showing it.
Rather than a mad dash of rallies and photo ops through swing states, the Republican nominee's recent schedule usually has been limited to one public event each day and sometimes none at all – his days filled instead, aides said, with a much more robust behind-the-scenes docket.
The slow pace appeared to begin accelerating late Tuesday when Romney swooped into must-win Florida, where he had initially been scheduled to hold only a private fundraiser Wednesday before heading to Virginia. Instead, aides announced that the candidate would add a stop there. Plans for Romney to take this weekend off at his beach house in San Diego also were scrapped, as campaign aides said he will remain on the trail instead.
The abrupt change in Romney's schedule comes as President Barack Obama appears to have ramped up the enthusiasm around his reelection campaign, marshaling the energy of last week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Over three days, Obama appeared at six rallies before 23,000 supporters in New Hampshire, Iowa and Florida, stopping at diners and sports bars along the way.
The shift in urgency may help account for the apparent popularity bounce Obama received after his acceptance speech Thursday in Charlotte. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week shows him leading Romney among registered voters by 50 percent to 44 percent, although the margin narrows to 49 percent to 48 percent among likely voters.
Romney aides and Republican strategists said that there was no need for their side to panic. Although Romney did not campaign last week during the Democratic gathering, and his public schedule since then has been light, aides stressed that he is raising money, preparing for three 90-minute debates with Obama next month, and conducting interviews with national and local television stations.
"It's a mistake to look at a candidate's schedule and make broad conclusions about strategy based on how many times they go wheels up or wheels down" to campaign events, said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who was a key adviser to GOP nominee John McCain's campaign in 2008.
"To the extent that the campaign is preparing for those 270 minutes [of debates] at the expense of a frantic daily campaign pace is an encouraging sign for Republicans," Schmidt added, "because it shows that the campaign is able to discern the difference between things that are more important and less important."
Still, the Romney team's last-minute addition of the public events this week appeared to illustrate the sense on the campaign trail that Obama has successfully drawn public attention away from his rival.
Images from the president's two-day Florida bus trip helped provide a sense that excitement was building. An crowd of 11,000 waited outside for hours to hear Obama on a hot, humid day in St. Petersburg, Fla. Six thousand supporters in Palm Beach, Fla., sang along to Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" at the convention center before the president arrived Sunday.
And the owner of a pizza shop in Fort Pierce, Fla., picked up Obama in a bear hug, then told reporters he plans to vote for the president even though he is a Republican.
On Monday, the Obama campaign announced that it raised $114 million in August, $3 million more than the Romney campaign, on the grass-roots strength of 1.1 million individual donors – marking the first time since April that the president had outraised his rival.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Obama campaign is not getting "overly excited" because it knows that "post-convention bumps can even out over time." But, she added pointedly, "hands down, we would rather be us than them at this stage in the campaign."
Inside the Romney brain trust, top aides grew defensive when questioned about why Romney has been making so few public appearances in recent days.
Kevin Madden, an adviser who travels with Romney, insisted that the schedule is sufficiently busy for this stage of the campaign, and he rejected any notion that Romney may have a stamina issue. Last month, for instance, Romney lamented to reporters during a day spent hopscotching between fundraisers on the tony islands around Cape Cod, Mass., "You wish you could spend more time on the campaign trail."
"The governor's been campaigning very vigorously and we're going to continue to campaign very vigorously," Madden said Monday. "We don't look at many days where we're not very busy getting our message out as best we can to voters who are interested and tuning in and care about this important debate."
When Romney has stepped out in recent days, he has had some bad luck. Last Saturday, for instance, he had planned to appear at a NASCAR race in Virginia and call out, "Drivers, start your engines!"
But his jump-start got rained out, leaving him to hand out hot dogs under a dank tent before leaving. He arrived at the airport to find his campaign's charter plane stranded on the tarmac because of an equipment malfunction.
Romney sat on the plane in Richmond for four hours, as reporters on board sent out Twitter messages about the unfortunate situation. His aides eventually located a substitute aircraft – offered up from a NASCAR team owner – and Romney arrived home at 2:31 a.m.
On Sunday, as Obama was being bear-hugged and serenaded in Florida, Romney attended church and held a debate prep session in Boston.
Terry Holt, a top aide on former president George W. Bush's campaigns, said Romney was "smart" to concentrate on preparations. "As the final stage is set for the real battlegrounds, I expect they will really put the pedal to the metal and leave it all out there," he said.
Still, Obama was happy to provide a juxtaposition. On Saturday, he arrived at the Kissimmee Civic Center, where 3,000 people had waited in a steamy gymnasium for hours to hear him speak. He entered to deafening cheers, and he thanked his hosts, only to be interrupted by more cheers before he could begin.
"Sometimes when the reception's this good, I just want to say 'Thank you' and leave the stage," Obama told the crowd. "How am I going to top this?"
That set the crowd into another roar, as supporters stood and applauded. The president laughed, then slapped the lectern with his open palms.
"You folks are fired up!" he said. He raised a hand and pretended to walk off the stage without saying another word.