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Election focus shifts to battleground states

Image: Mitt Romney, Rob Portman
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney takes a picture for well-wishers after an unscheduled stop at a Chipotle restaurant in Denver, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: NBC News

All eyes on Ohio: More than a week ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie predicted on “Meet the Press” that the entire narrative of the presidential contest would change after the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. And White House senior adviser David Plouffe responded to Christie’s pronouncement this way: “If it’s going to fundamentally change, that means in seven or 10 days from now you’ll see states like Ohio tied, states like Iowa tied. Because that’s what really matters here.” After some of the first polls since that debate (including Pew), Christie -- who campaigns with Romney today -- looks pretty prescient. But the point Plouffe made is the important development to watch in the coming days. Will the polling out of Ohio and Iowa, especially the ones conducted a few days after the debate, show a dramatically different race? Or will they show, despite some tightening, that Obama still holds the advantage on those states? If Ohio is in Obama’s column, it is VERY difficult for Romney to get to 270 electoral votes; he can do it without Ohio, but it’s hard. We’ll find out later this week where things stand in the Buckeye State.

Romney makes a big push in the Buckeye State: Speaking of Ohio, both Obama (in Columbus) and Romney (in Cuyahoga Falls with Christie) are holding rallies in the state. A big reason: Voter registration ends today in the state, so both sides are trying to expand their pool of voters. In fact, the New York Times writes that Romney is making a big push in Ohio over the next couple of days. “Ohio, whose 18 electoral votes are critical to Mr. Romney’s candidacy, has bedeviled him like no other battleground state. His prospects were so shaky two weeks ago that his advisers openly discussed the narrow path to winning the necessary 270 electoral votes without Ohio… But as the race for the White House takes on a new air of volatility after President Obama’s off-kilter debate performance last week … Mr. Romney is displaying new vigor in his fight for Ohio.” The biggest swing we saw in the Pew poll was Romney’s support in the Midwest, where he holds a 50 percent-44 percent lead over Obama among likely voters. Even a new poll out of Michigan shows Romney gaining ground on Obama (with the president up 48 percent-45 percent versus 47 percent-37 percent a month ago). Does that fade away in the days after the debate?

The enthusiasm gap: The aftermath from the debate couldn’t have come at a better time for Romney and a worse time for Obama. Why? Just look at the enthusiasm gap between the two parties BEFORE the debate. In our most recent NBC/WSJ poll -- which was released before the debate -- 79 percent of Republicans had high interest in the election, versus 73 percent of Democrats; 85 percent of seniors were high-interest voters, compared with 52 percent of those ages 18-34; and 73 percent of whites expressed high interest, versus 81 percent of blacks and 59 percent of Latinos. That’s why, even in our pre-debate poll, Obama and Romney were running virtually even among high-interest voters (Obama 49 percent, Romney 48 percent) and Obama’s lead among likely voters was three points (49 percent-46 percent) versus seven points among registered voters (51 percent-44 percent). And this enthusiasm gap is even more exaggerated in this new Pew survey which, for the first time, in a poll that does NOT weight by party I.D., has the GOP with a party I.D. advantage. While it’s unlikely the GOP does have an advantage in the Nov. election by as much as Pew shows, it does measure short-term enthusiasm boosts for a party. And that’s why Chicago shouldn’t comfort themselves too much in the fact that the Pew poll shows an electorate we’re unlikely to see vote in November. The fact remains: Republicans are more enthusiastic today about the election than they were last week and they already had an interest advantage going into last week.

Big Bird to the rescue? The Obama campaign is up with a sarcastic TV ad featuring Big Bird. “Bernie Madoff. Ken Lay. Dennis Kozlowski. Criminals. Gluttons of greed,” the ad goes. “And the evil genius who towered over them?” The ad then shows Big Bird. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street.” But First Read can report that that the Big Bird ad is not part of the campaign’s battleground-state buy; rather, it’s airing on national cable/broadcast. But if was part of a real battleground-state effort, the Romney camp reminds us this quote from Obama back in 2008: "If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things.” The RNC also gets into the Sesame Street act with its “Campaign Count.”