For the GOP, the climb to victory remains steep. Several states that Obama won four years ago would have to flip for Romney to reach the required 270 electoral votes.
"Let's be honest about it, at the presidential level, the Democrats took the Republicans out behind the woodshed a little bit in 2008. By the sheer number of electoral votes Barack Obama won last time, clearly we have our work cut out for us," said Gregg Keller, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "It's a tough map for us and no one should think this is going to be a walk in the park. It's going to be a tough race. But Republicans and conservatives believe this is an eminently winnable race."
The conservative gathering just outside Chicago — where Obama's political operation is based — focused attention on a Midwest region that could prove pivotal.
To the west, Iowa will be one of the most hotly contested states. Republicans have overtaken Democrats in Iowa voter party registration, the first time in six years they've had that pre-election advantage.
To the east, an Obama repeat in Indiana is viewed as unlikely and Ohio with its 18 electoral votes will be in play as usual. Republicans see a chance to apply pressure in Wisconsin and Michigan, too.
Illinois, the state that first sent Obama to the U.S. Senate, is hardly fertile territory for Romney. But conservative activists like Robert Baker of Princeton, Ill., said his local tea party group is already planning weekend canvass trips across the border in Iowa and Wisconsin, much like they did ahead of last week's recall. The Wisconsin win put a taste in their mouths, Baker said.
"We've demonstrated we can mobilize," the retired math teacher said. "We'll be pounding the pavement and handing out literature."
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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