BOCA RATON, Fla. — The two presidential campaigns are sounding sharply different notes about how they can get to 270 electoral votes, but beneath the post-debate bravado from both sides there is a rough consensus about the shape of the race in its final two weeks.
Top strategists for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney flooded the media center following the third and final presidential debate here Monday night, and made clear they will be primarily fighting over seven states and will spend most of their time and money in them between now and Nov. 6.
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The main battlegrounds: Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida and Wisconsin. The late inclusion of Wisconsin on this list reflects a bet by Romney — buoyed by some polls showing an opportunity for him there — that he can turn a state that has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1984.
Romney officials, eyeing steady gains in the polls, have not ruled out attempting to broaden the map in other states — claims met with disparagement by Obama aides, who say they remain confident their electoral college firewall is intact even amid a tightening national race and signs that three swing states in the South are looking more favorable for the GOP nominee.
Republicans are genuinely intrigued by the prospect of a strike in Pennsylvania and, POLITICO has learned, are considering going up on TV there outside the expensive Philadelphia market. But what Romney officials worry about, both in Pennsylvania and Michigan, is that if they put some cash down or use precious hours to send their candidate there Obama will respond by crushing their offensive with a big ad buy of his own.
So while Boston is open to the idea of going into such traditional Democratic strongholds, it is still mostly playing within the same map the two candidates have been locked in for months. And, increasingly, it is narrowing its focus as prospects improve in North Carolina, Florida and Virginia.
“That states that we’re playing in are the states we need to win,” noted Romney strategist Russ Schriefer. “We’ll see what happens in the next two weeks. We’re going to concentrate on Ohio and Colorado and Iowa and New Hampshire.”
“We’ll be in Ohio a lot,” added Romney strategist Stuart Stevens.
The Romney campaign is already airing TV ads in Wisconsin. The former Massachusetts governor has not been to the state since he tapped Paul Ryan as his running mate in August but is headed back soon.
“We’ll be back in Wisconsin,” said Eric Fehrnstrom. “Wisconsin is definitely in play.”
Obama officials, meanwhile, are convinced that they have a lead in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — and aren’t yet willing to write off Colorado, Florida and Virginia.
But senior Democrats increasingly recognize that their path to 270 electoral votes is not in the latter three but in the Midwest.
“Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio are crucial — if we win those three states, the president is reelected,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close Obama ally.
Obama adviser Robert Gibbs put it another way, saying Romney’s fate would depend on whether he can sweep the trio of Big 10 states.
“We intend to go out and win each of the three of those states,” said Gibbs.
And Pennsylvania and Michigan? They’re not worried and aren’t likely to send Obama there.
“Probably not, no,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter when asked if the president would rally supporters in the two traditionally Democratic electoral troves. “We have significant resources there. We are invested in those states at a much higher level than Gov. Romney is.”