By JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney storm into the final day of their long presidential contest, mounting one last effort to protect their flanks while engaging in the toughest battleground of all — Ohio.
The two campaigns were ready to leave matters in the hands of voters and their schedules left little doubt where the election would be won or lost. Obama was holding rallies in Wisconsin and Iowa on Monday. Romney was cutting a broader swath, with events in Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire.
But the richest prize is Ohio, and both Obama and Romney were rallying their supporters in its capital, Columbus.
Whoever wins Ohio has a simpler path to amass the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the presidency. With national polls showing the two candidates locked in a virtual tie, the outcome in a handful of key states will determine who occupies the White House for the next four years.
For Obama, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio are his firewall. "I think it's going to hold firm," Vice President Joe Biden told a rally in Ohio Sunday. Victories in those three states, barring a huge upset in a state like Pennsylvania, would virtually assure him re-election. "I think we're going to win clearly," Biden said.
Romney voiced more guarded optimism. In Cleveland, discussing the chances of Obama's re-election, Romney said, "It's possible, but not likely."
A final national NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll showed Obama getting the support of 48 percent of likely voters, with Romney receiving 47 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll had Obama at 49 and Romney at 48. A Pew Research Center poll released Sunday showed Obama with a three-point edge over Romney, 48 percent to 45 percent among likely voters.
Defying the odds, Romney drew one of his largest crowds Sunday in Pennsylvania, a state where Obama was holding onto a lead but where Romney aides said they detected soft support for the president. Despite a delayed arrival, Romney rallied thousands on a farm in a Philadelphia suburb on a cold night, taking the podium as loudspeakers blared the theme from "Rocky." The sign of energy in a key swing area of the state was only tempered by some early exits by supporters seeking to escape the cold.
Meanwhile, about 30 million people have already voted in 34 states and the District of Columbia, either by mail or in person, although none will be counted until Election Day on Tuesday. More than 4 million of the ballots were cast in Florida, where Democrats filed a lawsuit demanding an extension of available time. A judge granted their request in one county where an early voting site was shut down for several hours Saturday because of a bomb scare.
Both men were spending the final days of the campaign presenting themselves as can-do leaders willing to break partisan logjams in Washington.
The former Massachusetts governor warned that a second Obama term would threaten the American economy because of the president's inability to work with Congress. "He's ignored them, he's attacked them, he's blamed them," Romney said.
Obama cited bipartisan work on middle-class tax cuts and on ending the Pentagon's don't-ask-don't-tell policy, but warned that he would not compromise away his priorities, such as health care. "I'm not willing to pay that price," he said.
At stops, Obama has been telling crowds, "If you want to break the gridlock in Congress, you'll vote for leaders who feel the same way, whether they are Democrats or Republicans or independents." But the local candidates he often cites are inevitably Democrats.
As the race approached its conclusion, the two candidates engaged in their own personal moments with friends and close aides, an acknowledgement that no matter who won, this was the end of the campaign.
Longtime Obama chums Mike Ramos, a childhood friend from Hawaii, and Marty Nesbitt, a friend from Chicago, joined the president on Air Force One. On Monday, longtime adviser and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former personal aide Reggie Love were to join the entourage.