By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — On the eve of their national party conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are locked in a close race to amass the requisite 270 Electoral College votes for victory. And the contest is exactly where it was at the start of the long, volatile summer: focused on seven states that are up for grabs.
Neither candidate has a significant advantage in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia, which offer a combined 85 electoral votes, according to an Associated Press analysis of public and private polls, spending on television advertising and numerous interviews with Republican and Democratic strategists in battleground states.
The analysis, which also took into account the strength of a candidate's on-the-ground organization and travel schedules, found that if the election were held today, Obama would have 19 states and the District of Columbia, offering 247 votes, solidly in his column or leaning his way, while Republican Romney would have 24 states with 206 votes.
Obama won all seven of the too-close-to-call states in 2008, and they are where the race will primarily be contested in the homestretch to the Nov. 6 election.
Ten weeks before Election Day, the AP analysis isn't meant to be predictive but rather is intended to provide a snapshot of a race that's been stubbornly close all year.
Among the unknowns that could shake up the electoral landscape before November: the latest unemployment figures that come out early next month, an unexpected foreign policy crisis in Syria or Iran and the outcome of the candidates' October debates.
Both sides are working to persuade the 23 percent of registered voters who said in an Associated Press-GfK poll that they are either undecided about the presidential race or iffy in their support for a candidate.
To woo them, the campaigns and political parties, along with allied groups with access to unlimited financial contributions, have already spent an astounding $540 million on television advertising, according to ad spending reports provided to the AP. And there's more to come.
Over the past three months, the campaign took a sharply negative turn, at times becoming nasty and personal.
Obama sought to define Romney early as a ruthless corporate raider for his time at the head of a private equity firm in Boston, and as an out-of-touch rich man keeping secrets about his wealth. Romney, in turn, worked to cast Obama as a failed president on a host of fronts, primarily the economy.
Both candidates have hit road bumps: Obama saw the unemployment rate rise to 8.3 percent and gave Republicans an opening to argue that he was unfriendly to small business. Romney had a widely panned foreign trip and made a series of potentially problematic comments, most recently joking about the debunked conspiracy theory regarding Obama's citizenship.
The national party conventions, starting with Republicans here, who convene Monday and start with a full schedule on Tuesday, and ending with Democrats the following week in Charlotte, N.C., will set the parameters of the fall campaign, and could provide each side with at least a temporary surge of support in national, if not battleground state, polls.
While Obama has a clear advantage given his incumbency, Romney does have a path to victory — though it's a steep climb.
He must win most of the seven most competitive states — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia — in order to reach the magic number. For instance, he can lose Ohio's 18 electoral votes and still become president if he wins the other six and hangs onto those already in his grasp. It's difficult to see a scenario where Romney wins without a victory in Florida, which offers 29 electoral votes.
Neither side expects a dramatically different playing field this fall.
"You know the states that are in play," said Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina. "I don't think there's going to be a surprise."
Romney's political director Rich Beeson makes the same point: "I don't think you're going to see the map go crazy."
Still, once their conventions are over, both campaigns will commission polls in the hardest-fought states to determine whether to shift their strategies. The candidates and their allied outside groups will pull money and manpower from states that are moving out of reach while relocating it to others they may now think they have a shot at winning.