It's four weeks until Election Day and while below the surface both presidential campaigns are focused on essential logistics – like getting supporters in early states to the polls and working the phones to contact potential voters – in public, they are squabbling like children, in some cases over children.
President Barack Obama's campaign has released a television advertisement highlighting Republican rival Mitt Romney's remark during last week's debate that though he likes "Big Bird" he wants to cut federal funding to public television.
Obama, whose debate performance was widely panned, is hoping he can use Romney's shot at the beloved children's character to sap some of the momentum the former businessman has gathered since the performance. Various recent polls have shown Romney pulling into a statistical tie with the president.
The ad begins with ominous music and names Wall Street and corporate scoundrels such as Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay, and a mocking voice says, "And the evil genius who towered over them? One man has the guts to speak his name."
"Big Bird," says Romney, in three separate clips. Then the large, yellow fellow himself is spliced into the spot.
The ad wraps with the announcer saying, "Mitt Romney knows it's not Wall Street you have to worry about, it's Sesame Street."
Democrats charge that funding for public broadcasting makes up a minuscule fraction of the overall federal budget, but Republicans counter that it highlights wasted monies with the country mired in historic debt.
Romney appears to be on a role in alienating children, as he declined to take part in a presidential special sponsored by Nickelodeon, in which each candidate answers questions submitted by children for 30 minutes during separate, taped appearances. "Nick News" has been running the special since 1996 and Romney is one of just three candidates to shun the show since it's inception. Then-President George W. Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry both declined in 2004.
After the special runs, kids across the country weigh in on their choice for president –and except for the 2004 election, their record is spot-on.
Linda Ellerbee, the show's producer and host, said the network has been in contact with the Romney campaign since April, but was recently told the former Massachusetts governor's schedule is too busy to accommodate the program, according to reports. Ellerbee has said the kids' survey is a key bellwether because they often reflect the views of their parents.
Recent polls show Romney recovering from the slight lead Obama earned following the Democratic National Convention, following his strong debate performance. Romney leads Obama 49 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday.
"Romney is seen as the candidate who has new ideas and is viewed as better able than Obama to improve the jobs situation and reduce the budget deficit," said a memo accompanying the survey results. Two-thirds of those surveyed said Romney was the debate-winner.
Other areas where Romney has closed ground on Obama, according to Pew, are in being seen as both a strong leader and willing to work with members of the opposing party. On both accounts, Romney has erased wide leads that Obama held as recently as a month ago. Now, the two are tied.
But at this stage in the campaign, one of the most critical components isn't playing out on the airwaves. The campaign that does a better job of maximizing voter turnout, particularly in the states where early and absentee voting has begun, stands a better chance of winning in the neck-and-neck race.
Democrats' have anchored their efforts with a "Gotta Vote" bus tour that roamed Iowa last week and has crisscrossed Ohio this week, both of which are critical swing states.
Republicans, in a memo to reporters, make the case that their on-the-ground effort is vastly improved over four years ago and will help them cruise to victory.
"In at least four key swing states in 2008, Obama won handily among early voters, allowing him to win those states without winning the actual Election Day vote," noted Rick Wiley, political director for the Republican National Committee. "He will not have the same early vote lead this year because our absentee balloting operation is producing promising results."
Republicans voters have requested more ballots than Democrats in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Nevada, he said.
This week, Ohio is ground-zero for the candidates, with both Obama and Romney scheduled to hold rallies in the Buckeye State. And vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan get their turn in the spotlight during their one and only debate, scheduled for Thursday night.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.