AMES, Iowa — Mitt Romney stepped up his bid to strip President Barack Obama of the popular attributes that propelled his candidacy four years and claim them as his own, casting himself in a formal speech here as an agent of change who would govern as a post-partisan president.
Saying the nation is at a critical juncture, the Republican nominee repeated his newest campaign mantra - that he would usher in "real change" - and summoned Americans to shift course to meet the challenges the country faces.
But as Romney insisted his campaign was on the march — and aides tried to expand the playing field by arguing Minnesota suddenly was competitive — the electoral math lingered as a serious obstacle for the Republican. Fresh polling in the critical battleground of Ohio suggested Obama still holds a slim lead there, and his state campaign chairman acknowledged Romney's difficulty of taking the White House without Ohio.
The president's reelection campaign, meanwhile, claimed an insurmountable lead in early voting there and in other key swing states, including Iowa.
Obama mocked Romney's new campaign theme, saying in an interview with Philadelphia radio host Michael Smerconish that Romney's policies are "not big changes, they're a repeat, a relapse of things that haven't worked for over a decade now."
In the same interview, Obama again promised to get to the bottom of what happened Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack but he suggested that Republicans have only tried to politicize the issue.
"I've always been straight with the American people with the decisions that we've made," Obama said, while Romney "hasn't been restrained by facts."
The interview was one of nearly a dozen that Obama conducted on Friday, including one with MTV, from Washington. He heads back to the campaign trail on Saturday with a trip to New Hampshire, followed by stops in Ohio, Florida and Virginia on Monday.
Romney returned to Ohio on Friday night, and is planning to return again on Sunday. The state has become central to his hopes, and he dispatched Ryan there for a bus tour over the weekend.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who chairs Romney's Ohio campaign, told NBC News after traveling the state with Romney this week that he's "feeling the pressure."
"If we don't win Ohio, it's tough to see us winning the election nationally," Portman said. "It's possible, but it's very difficult."
The Obama campaign pressed its case on Ohio, with Obama adviser Aaron Pickrell arguing that early voting is showing a high level of activity in counties Obama won four years ago.
In those counties, 12 percent of voters have so far turned out, as opposed to 9 percent of registered voters in Republican counties. And Obama aides said voters in precincts that backed the president in 2008 have so far cast 53,400 more ballots this year than in precincts that voted Republican 2008 — exceeding that same measure in 2008 by 23,400, even accounting for shifted precinct lines since the last election.
"The bottom line is what we're seeing here in Ohio is the exact race we planned for and built for," Pickrell said.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser traveling with Romney, was asked Friday whether the Republican had peaked too early and his momentum has stalled. "We're riding a wave and it hasn't hit the beach yet," Fehrnstrom said. "All the trendlines are positive."
In addition to Ohio, Romney is scheduled to campaign this weekend in Florida and Virginia to try and lock down those swing states that have been trending slightly in his favor. But he canceled a scheduled trip to Virginia Beach, Va. on Sunday, when forecasters predicted a severe storm will hit part of the East Coast. He will still attend rallies in Richmond, Va. and Sterling, Va. that day.
Romney aides tried to show they were mounting a challenge in Minnesota, a state that leans Democratic and has not been seriously contested by either campaign, by buying television advertisements. Fehrnstrom claimed that Minnesota was now "tied," although Romney has not led or come within the margin of error in any public polls.
The Obama campaign also has reserved television time in Minnesota. But neither candidate has scheduled visits to the state, and both campaigns declined to disclose the size or location of their buys. The ads could air only in markets that bleed into neighboring Wisconsin, a hotly contested swing state, to reach voters there.
Obama advisers on Friday dismissed the idea that Minnesota is now in play — or that any new state could be added to the contested electoral map with 11 days to go.
They expressed renewed confidence about their path to the 270 electoral college votes needed for reelection, even as they acknowledged that the small sliver of voters who are undecided may be leaning toward Romney.
In his Iowa speech, Romney charged that the president had become distracted by "small, shiny objects" and had become too rigidly partisan, saying the Republican ticket offers the "leadership that these times demand."
"Four years ago, candidate Obama spoke to the scale of the times. Today, he shrinks from it," Romney said. "The president's campaign falls far short of the magnitude of these times. And the presidency of the last four years has fallen far short of the promises of the last campaign. Four years ago, America voted for a post-partisan president, but they have seen the most partisan and political of presidents and a Washington in gridlock because of it."
The speech had been billed as a significant economic policy address, but Romney did not roll out any new policy proposals nor delve into the specifics of his plans to help the economy. Instead, he presented a rhetorical repackaging of his familiar campaign agenda, building on the "change" narrative he first introduced Thursday in Ohio and blaming Obama for partisan stalemates.
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