By CHARLES BABINGTON and THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — With one debate and one jobs report to go, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are hurtling towards Election Day in a virtual deadlock, each convinced that victory is within reach if his campaign sticks with its plan.
In 16 days, voters will prove one of them wrong.
When that happens, the losing team will have years to ponder whether one final tweak in tactics or message might have turned a fiercely fought, sometimes joyless election that seems likely to rank among the nation's closest.
Having steadied himself after a damaging first debate, Obama is banking on his renowned get-out-the-vote ground operation to steer millions of supporters to the polls. Many have already voted, under early balloting scenarios that favor campaigns with the most volunteers to flush out potential supporters.
Republicans, meanwhile, feel Romney has finally broken through with his message that the economy can be much better, and that he's the man to prove it. He pounded that theme in last week's second debate, sounding almost like a romance counselor in imploring Americans not "to settle" for a less robust economy than they deserve.
Interviews with top strategists indicate that neither campaign feels it needs to make a significant shift in strategy in the closing days. Obama may hold a slight edge in battleground states, some Republicans grudgingly say, but Romney has the time, money and message to erase it.
"Republicans are coalescing around a candidate who has bridged the credibility gap, and now the question is, can we make our closing arguments and win on the ground," said veteran GOP strategist Terry Holt. "We're not there yet. But that's where we're getting to."
Two scheduled events before Nov. 6 could wrinkle the race's fabric, although millions of Americans have already voted or firmly made up their minds.
Obama and Romney meet Monday for their final debate, focused on foreign policy. It's a topic that generally favors an incumbent president. But the forum comes as Obama faces growing heat over the administration's handling of a deadly confrontation at a U.S. consulate in Libya.
Romney stumbled last week when he tried to press that point. He will be under pressure to deliver a sharper, more precise indictment Monday.
The economy remains the top issue, but to make his closing pitch to voters, Romney "needs to look strong and presidential in a national security setting," said Steve Schmidt, who managed Republican John McCain's 2008 campaign.
And on Nov. 2 — less than 100 hours before Election Day — the government will release its monthly unemployment report, for October. It's doubtful that anything short of a huge rise or fall in the rate would change many votes' minds. But in a neck-and-neck election, almost any event might be viewed as crucial.
Republicans remain buoyed by what they see as the substantial and long-lasting boost Romney received from his strong showing in the first debate, on Oct. 3, when the president seemed listless.
Obama apparently stopped his slide with a vastly improved performance in the second forum, two weeks later. But even the most partisan Democrats don't say he completely undid the damage from Oct. 3.
Pollsters and strategists in both parties say the two debates essentially returned the contest to its mid-August status, before Obama enjoyed a bounce from the late-summer nominating conventions.
Romney now is focused on the two-step strategy every challenger must pursue: Obama deserves to be fired, he says, and he, Romney, is a qualified alternative.
It's the essence of Romney's argument from the start. His campaign hopes the noise from flubs — such as Romney's criticism of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax — has subsided to the point that voters are ready to tune in.
The race "is definitely going in the right direction," Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, told a Florida radio show Friday. "It's going to come down to turnout, voter enthusiasm."
Despite such optimism, the Electoral College map remains in Obama's favor. He carried more states than he needed in 2008, so he can lose several of them next month and still win a second term.
Romney's path is much narrower. He must take away at least a half-dozen states from Obama. And they can't be just the small ones like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Florida is an absolute must for Romney. Ohio is the next closest thing. Democrats see Ohio, with its lower-than-average unemployment rate and general embrace of the president's auto industry bailout, as their best chance to stop Romney cold.
Rather than pour their heaviest efforts into Florida and risk losing it by a hair, the Obama campaign has placed its heaviest bet on Ohio. That has forced Romney and Ryan to make their own stand there.
The two Republicans spent six of eight days in Ohio after the first debate. Obama has made repeated visits.
More advertising money was being spent in Ohio last week, almost $9 million, than any other state including Florida, where ad time is expensive. The campaigns were spending a combined $7.3 million in Florida last week.
When Democrats are asked about polls that seem to show a pro-Romney drift, they quickly change the subject to Obama's voter-turnout operation.
Some of the Obama campaign's paid workers never left key states after the 2008 election. They have spent four years building files of likely volunteers, supporters and persuadable voters. It's a labor-intensive effort they say Romney cannot match.
Jeremy Bird, Obama's national field director, released a memo Friday about early voting in Ohio. The campaign has 125 field offices "in every corner of the state," Bird wrote. "We are ahead of where we were at this time against John McCain — and ahead of Mitt Romney."
There's anecdotal evidence of strong early voting for Obama in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere, but it's possible that Romney is roughly keeping pace. In Florida, Democrats have cut into the GOP's traditional advantage in absentee balloting. But Romney officials dismiss the numbers.
Many absentee-voting Democrats otherwise would have engaged in another practice, simply called "early voting," which Democrats traditionally have dominated, GOP officials say. They contend there's no net gain for the president.
In Colorado, another battleground state, Romney's ground game "is equal to, if not superior to, the Obama ground game," said Dick Wadhams, a former state Republican Party chairman.
Wadhams said he thinks Colorado suburban women, in particular, are edging towards Romney, reassured by his solid performance in the first debate and his vow to generate more jobs.
Obama, meanwhile, focused his campaign almost entirely on women after last Tuesday's debate, in which Romney spoke awkwardly of receiving "binders full of women" seeking top jobs when he was Massachusetts governor.
Campaigning Friday in northern Virginia, Obama told a heavily female audience that when it comes to issues important to women's health and jobs, his opponent has developed "Romnesia." The president was flanked by signs saying "Women's Health Security."
Romney's jobs-and-economy pitch grew slightly more difficult at the week's end, when nearly all the battleground states reported drops in their unemployment rates. Most were modest, however.
In all-important Ohio, the unemployment rate dropped even though the total number of jobs also fell, due to people retiring or leaving the workforce for other reasons.
GOP strategists say the overall economy remains bleak enough for Romney to make a forceful closing argument: Obama has failed to bring the jobs he promised, and Romney has the skills and philosophy to do better.
"It remains jobs and the economy, and related fiscal issues, which people remain unhappy about," said veteran Republican consultant Charlie Black. "And people believe Romney is up to the task."
Obama volunteers hope to steer enough voters to the polls to overcome the GOP message.
Babington reported from Washington.
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