After a season dominated by talk of Ohio, Virginia and Florida, Campaign 2012 suddenly shifted focus to a new trio of states Wednesday amid a new verbal battle about which candidate is better positioned to win on Tuesday.
The new geographic front in the political war focuses on Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, three states that have backed Democrats dating back at least to 1988 but which Republicans say are ripe for GOP nominee Mitt Romney in his challenge to President Barack Obama.
Republican super PACs have been advertising in those states for some time, and Romney's campaign has joined in two of them, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, but not Michigan as of Wednesday.
Money spent in unexpected places by the campaigns or their super PACs says little at this point. That's because, unlike in past presidential campaigns, both sides are flush with cash and have extra funds to play with down the stretch.
The fact that Romney's campaign has put some money into ads in Minnesota and now Pennsylvania doesn't say a lot so far, and the fact that his campaign has not put money into ads in Michigan may say more about the campaign's assessment of the electoral map.
Still, Romney advisers said the action in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan showed that Republicans are expanding the electoral map and have more options to get to 270 electoral votes.
"I think we're in a great position to win," Romney senior adviser Russ Schriefer told reporters during a conference call, citing Republican enthusiasm and the fact that the president is not above 50 percent in recent polls of those states. "Can we win all of them? Probably not," he added. "Can we win some of them? I think probably so."
In response, Obama's campaign has thrown ads on television in all three states but advisers said the decision was made out of prudence, not concern. They insisted that the fact that Romney appears to be probing those states is a sign of weakness, not strength, because he is roadblocked in the true battlegrounds in his bid for 270 electoral votes.
Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, went so far as to promise on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that he would shave off his mustache if Obama lost any of the three states. He later told reporters, "I'm very confident that I'll still have this mustache on November 8th. We're going to win those states. So, the bottom line on all this is that this professed momentum of the Romney campaign is really 'faux-mentum.' "
Another Obama adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid about strategy, said that at an earlier point in the campaign, Obama might have waited to see whether GOP ad buys in these states were having an effect. But, he said, with just days remaining in the election, the campaign will take nothing for granted.
Polls have tightened in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Republicans cite that as evidence that the momentum in the race has shifted toward Romney and that the challenger is in a position to overtake the incumbent in states that once appeared off the boards. But with national polls showing a dead heat, as most do right now, it's expected that states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota will be relatively close contests.
In Pennsylvania, pollsters and political strategists not affiliated with either presidential campaign suggested that the race was close but that Obama had a clear lead. There's bipartisan agreement that the race has narrowed because the president has grown more unpopular in the southwestern portion of the state, in part because he has been attacked as being anti-coal.
Christopher Nicholas, a former GOP consultant who is now political director for the Pennsylvania Business Council, said of Romney: "He's doing less poorly in Philadelphia suburbs than a basic Republican has, and the president is collapsing in the southwest."
"The lead here is four or five [percentage points], and I don't think one week of TV is going to alter that," said former governor Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat. He also indicated that Obama has a significantly larger get-out-the-vote operation than Romney does.
Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, countered by telling reporters that Romney's ground operation is "incredibly strong" in Pennsylvania and has been in place "since day one" of the campaign.
Minnesota would seem to be a reach for Romney: It hasn't voted Republican since 1972, making it the state with the longest streak of voting for Democratic presidential candidates. But it has elected two Republican governors and an independent over the past two decades and while the current governor, Mark Dayton, is a Democrat, Republicans control the legislature.
Romney, however, has had scant presence in the state, leading analysts to question whether this is all a head fake by the GOP. "Romney has absolutely no ground game [in Minnesota]," said one outside Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid in assessing the race. "I can't imagine it's real."
Others familiar with Minnesota politics, on both sides of the aisle, said that while Romney remains slightly behind in the state, the race is tighter, making it a smart move for the Republican candidate to invest some of his extensive resources there.
They pointed to a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research that showed Obama ahead by only three points, within the margin of error, and said Romney is doing well among the independent voters who tend to decide elections in Minnesota.
Michigan may be the most difficult of the three for Romney because of his opposition to Obama's bailout of the automobile industry. The bailout has proven to be an obstacle to Romney in Ohio and could be an even bigger factor in Michigan.
Mark Brewer, the Democratic Party chairman in Michigan, said that while Democrats have prepared for a potentially close election, "Michigan's not in play . . . We didn't expect the president to win by 17 points like he did in 2008. That was a once-in-a-lifetime election."
Matt Frendewey, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, said Democratic support is "very underwhelming" and that Republicans have the infrastructure in place to turn out their voters. He added, however, that local Republicans "would love a visit" by Romney.
Until four years ago, Michigan and Pennsylvania were considered true battlegrounds, even though Democrats had won them consistently. Obama changed that with big victories in both, which may be one reason Republicans have been reluctant to make a more serious play for them.
In the past three elections, Democratic nominees have gotten a higher percentage of the vote in those states than nationally. But if the national polls are showing a dead heat, as most of them do right now, it's expected that such states as Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota will show relatively closer contests than four years ago.
That doesn't mean the balance has shifted to Romney in those states, which is why Romney advisers stopped short of predicting victory. It only means that if the national numbers show the race essentially tied or with one candidate ahead by a point, these states aren't going to show the president ahead by seven or eight or nine points. If Romney were to win a big victory in the popular vote, he could carry one or more of these states.
Instead of watching the advertising dollars, a more telling indicator of what states are in play is where the candidates spend their time in the final days. Romney's campaign announced a big rally in Ohio Friday night, which will feature a huge cast of elected officials from around the country. They will then fan out in groups across 11 states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan but not, according to the Romney release, Minnesota. Romney's schedule for Saturday through Monday has not been released.