CLEVELAND, Ohio—President Barack Obama's voice sounded coarse and tired when he delivered the final speech of a cross-country tour that had taken him to eight states in three days. About 12,000 supporters were waiting on the airport tarmac here when Air Force One landed and rolled behind the stage. With the music of U2 blaring into the warm autumn night, Obama hustled down the stairs from the plane and jogged toward the lectern and teleprompters awaiting him.
The message he delivered along the banks of Lake Erie was the same one he preached previously that day in Virginia, and before that in Florida, Iowa and Colorado. He spoke about women's health, promoted his agenda to increase federal spending on domestic programs paid for by higher taxes on upper-income families, and he accused his opponent Mitt Romney of favoring the wealthy over the middle class. He gave his standard line about what he calls "Romnesia" and implored the crowd to vote—preferably before Election Day.
But before Obama reached the part of his speech at the end when he usually calls on the audience to share his message with their neighbors, the president paused. His tone changed. His voice, hoarse from three days of rallies and an almost sleepless night, quieted.
"Look, Ohio, I know we've been through tough times," Obama said. "Every day I think about everybody out there across the country who's still looking for a job...whose homes may be still under water or at risk of foreclosure. The folks out there who at the end of the month are sitting at the kitchen table trying to figure out, How am I going to make all these bills? Michelle and I understand it, because we know what it's like to have a tough time sometimes."
The message was meant for the entire nation, but was directed to the inhabitants of the city in front of him, a place still struggling with an unemployment rate above nine percent. Other parts of the state have fared better since the end of the recession, although Ohio faced periods of statewide joblessness of above 10.5 percent during Obama's first term.
Since those dark days, parts of Ohio have seen a resurgence, and in a state where one in eight jobs relies on the auto industry, Obama's early support of a federal bailout for General Motors and Chrysler provides him leverage. It also offers an opening to attack Romney, who supported a plan that would have withheld guaranteed federal loans to the embattled companies until they agreed to undergo a managed bankruptcy.
"I bet on American workers. I bet on American manufacturing," Obama shouted over the noise of the crowd. "And I would do it again, because that bet always pays off."
Obama's post-debate tour had taken him to Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, California, Illinois and Nevada, mostly states where victory is not yet secure for either candidate but are battlegrounds that will determine the outcome of the race.
The driving theme of this trip, which Obama dubbed a 48-hour marathon extravaganza, targeted these key states, all of which allow early voting. At every stop along Obama's tour, supporters were encouraged to vote early so they could spend Election Day focusing their efforts on bringing others to the polls. (Also, history has shown that Democrats are more likely to vote in larger numbers than Republicans if given more than a single day to cast a ballot.) In Dayton, Ohio, where Obama ralliedon Tuesday, the campaign hung a white, all-caps sign that read simply, "Vote Early."
Obama campaign officials are placing a special emphasis on getting minorities to vote before Election Day, a strategy to secure more votes among overwhelmingly Democratic groups. The campaign is banking on the early vote to give them a head start, and officials predict more Democrats will come out this time than four years ago.
"We are going to enter the election with larger margins than we did in 2008," White House senior adviser David Plouffe said during one of the many bus rides on the trip.
While Obama finished his tour on a personal note in Cleveland, his speeches aimed to draw sharp contrasts with Romney. At times it seemed he was talking more about Romney than his own vision for the future, although Obama always took time to share the blueprint for what he planned to do in his second term. The campaign distributed a 19-page magazine-style booklet that described the direction Obama planned to take the country if re-elected, a publication he spoke about at every rally this week.
But it was while discussing Romney that Obama's message seemed to resonate most. With mere days before the end of the campaign, Obama sharpened his attacks on the former Massachusetts governor, pivoting from describing the differences of policy to attacking his integrity. Obama expanded on his light-hearted use of the phrase "Romnesia" this week to say, bluntly, that Romney was not only a man with whom he disagreed politically, but also one who could not be trusted.
"We joke about Romnesia. But it's not funny," Obama said in Cleveland. "Because it speaks to something serious. It has to do with trust. There's no more serious issue in a presidential campaign than trust. Trust matters."
When he did speak about policy, Obama sought to tie Romney with Senate candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, socially conservative Republicans who believe abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape. The Obama campaign joined Democrats in seizing on comments made by Mourdock in which he called a child conceived from a rape "something God intended to happen." Obama began alluding to Mourdock's comments Thursday morning in Tampa, Florida.
"I don't think any politician in Washington, most of whom are male, should be making health care decisions for women," Obama said in Tampa, warning that Romney would "turn back the clock 50 years for women." Later that day, Obama's official Twitter account posted a series of tweets that focused exclusively on the topic, using the word "rape" six times in the span of about half an hour. Earlier this month, the official campaign Tumblr page declared that women's "lady parts" were at stake in the election. (The post was later removed after being heavily criticized.)
The aggressive effort to steer women away from Republicans is a calculated one, since Democrats see female voters as a primary component to their victory strategy. According to Obama campaign data, there are more female undecided voters than males, and it is independents both campaigns are fighting for.
"The more we're talking about women's issues, women's health care, the differences between the candidates, the better it is for us," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We feel it's a winning issue."
As the final week of the campaign approaches, polls suggest Romney is closing the gap with female voters, although Obama strategists write off the data as sloppy polling. White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer on Thursday said some polls, even those sponsored by national news outlets, are "worth putting in the waste bin."
Still, it is hard to deny there does appear to be a growing momentum of support for Romney, even though his path to the 270 Electoral College votes is not nearly as clear as Obama's. To win, he will need to secure Florida, Ohio and Virginia, and then other battleground states.
The state of the map is much friendlier to the president, but as his tumultuous campaign schedule suggests, his campaign is taking nothing for granted.