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After rallying their parties in Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have begun the sprint to the end of their titanic struggle over the role of government and the president's record on the economy.
While television pundits mused about whose prime-time convention speech will resonate more with the electorate, the candidates and their running mates are gearing up for the battles that are more likely to sway the election: shoe-leather campaigning, jump-starting their get-out-the-vote organizations and preparing for the critical debates set for October.
As Obama campaign manager Jim Messina noted during the Democratic convention, early voting is set to start in Iowa in just two weeks. And with the conventions so late in the cycle and voters back from summer vacations, there will be no respite until Election Day.
The only break will come when prepping for the debates, which, aside from the next two jobs reports or an unexpected October surprise, will be the last, best chance for one side to break out of what has been a fairly even race to date.
Democrats left North Carolina expecting - and needing - a bump up in enthusiasm, given polls showing that their voters are less excited than they were four years ago. "We have a lot of energy and momentum," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. "The contrast is very sharp with the Republicans to me and I think to a lot of folks - who is fighting for the middle class and who is fighting to protect wealthy interests and powerful interests."
With the Romney campaign outraising Obama's for several months in a row and holding a decisive advantage among outside super PACs, Democrats are hoping that their advantages on the ground, especially among younger voters and on social media, will propel them to victory. One silver lining they see is the fact that Romney received a negligible 1-point jump at the end of his convention last month, according to a CNN/ORC International poll. In more good news for Obama, a Gallup poll after the Democratic convention showed him with a 7 point higher approval rating.
But Democrats appear more worried than Republicans about their prospects on Nov. 6. Behind the scenes in Charlotte, N.C., top Obama surrogates to delegates and Democratic volunteers repeatedly went back to this message: If you aren't from a battleground state, get to one. If you can't get to one, sign up to phone bank. And if you can send some cash, that'd be really great, too.
Last week's news that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would lead an effort to raise outside money for Obama only underscored the fear Democrats have, especially of big money that could be dumped on them in the closing sprint.
Democratic campaign operatives say that what keeps them up at night is the prospect of not being able to match the financial advantage of a late-in-the-game influx of money from one of the many billionaires backing Romney and Congressional Republicans.
Still, if the cable news pundits are right and the Democratic National Convention produced a stronger message than the GOP's rally did, Obama's ability to hammer it home on the trail, and in the debates, could be crucial.
The president and Vice President Joseph Biden took their campaign on the road to New Hampshire and Iowa on Friday, where the president's updated stump speech called for more patience to fix the economy and dismissed Republican ideas as simply more of the same policies they've pushed before - tax cuts for the rich and cutting regulations, which Obama said would "stick it to the middle class." And he pressed his vision for a more inclusive country, one where people come together for common goals instead of being left "on your own" when sickness or other troubles hit.
Romney headed to Iowa and again urged people to make the election a referendum on the president's economic record. He seized on the latest in a string of disappointing jobs reports - a less than expected 96,000 new jobs in August - to argue it's time for a new man at the helm.
"If last night was the party, this morning is the hangover," Romney said about the jobs announcement, which came out within 12 hours of Obama's renomination acceptance speech.
"This is more of the same for middle-class families who are suffering through the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression," he added.
Romney's vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said Obama had fallen well short of his promises.
"This is not what a recovery looks like," the Wisconsin Republican said in Nevada last week. "We need growth. We need economic growth, and we can get that if we get the right policies in place."
The Romney/Ryan strategy has been to keep a steady drumbeat on the economy and keep the focus on the president, rather than fleshing out the details of their own plans, such as how they would pay for a round of new tax cuts.
Obama acknowledged the jobs report, saying that it's the 30th straight month of growth. "We know it's not good enough," he said. "We need to create more jobs, faster."
But Obama and Democrats plan to continue repeating their mantra that Republican obstruction of the president's jobs proposals are getting in the way, while reminding voters of the difficulty he faced when he took office.
Obama said that there would be more than 1 million new jobs today if Republicans hadn't blocked most of his
$447 billion jobs bill last year, and he urged Congress to take action immediately to prevent middle-class taxes from going up next year.