Saturday February 6th, 2016 11:04PM

100 days to go: Tight race, defining moments left

By Ken Stanford Reporter
WASHINGTON - Stubbornly close and deeply divisive, the presidential race throttles into its last 100 days as an enormous clash over economic vision, with the outcome likely to come down to fall debates, final unemployment numbers and fierce efforts to mobilize voters. It may seem like an election for the whole nation, but only about eight states will decide who wins the White House.

Polling shows the contest between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney remains remarkably static across the country and in those pivotal states even as both men and their allies pour money into largely negative television advertising to sway opinions.

The two candidates will intensify their time before voters in the weeks ahead, knowing much of the public will not truly start paying attention until after Labor Day.

What voters probably will see will look a lot like what's played out so far - a bitter, bruising, personal contest over who can be trusted to fix the economy. Obama, for example, used his weekend radio and Internet address to blame Republicans for a stalemate that could raise taxes on Americans next year, and he took a swipe at Romney without mentioning his challenger by name.

"Republicans in Congress and their nominee for president believe that the best way to create prosperity in America is to let it trickle down from the top," he said. "They believe that if our country spends trillions more on tax cuts for the wealthy, we'll somehow create jobs - even if we have to pay for it by gutting things like education and training and by raising middle-class taxes. They're wrong."

The upcoming stretch is loaded with opportunities for the candidates to capture the public's imagination, land a big blow or flub a chance. Romney is closing in on his vice presidential nominee, both candidates will give highly scrutinized convention speeches, and the two will face off three times in October debates.

Then there are the surprises - be they national events or scares from abroad - that can jolt the campaigns and test the candidates.

"We're all looking for that moment," said David Gergen, a political analyst who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents. He predicted it could come in the first of the debates, in Denver on Oct. 3, when Obama and Romney finally stand on a stage together and go at it over economic policy.

Gergen said it could be the most defining debate in more than 50 years. "Obama is leading, but it's often 47-45. He's still got to get to 50," he said. "If the undecided voters all break at the last minute, that could go against the incumbent. If Obama wants to wrap it up, the first debate carries enormous significance."

The daily squabbles and wrinkles of the campaign will change. So will the gaffes. The basic messages will not.

Obama's thesis is that his plan for rebuilding the economic base and for ending tax cuts for the rich will help everyone, and that Romney would be a return to recession-era policies. Romney's view is Obama came in over his head, squandered his shot and must give way to a leader favoring small government and taxes.

As Obama's wife, Michelle, put it in an appeal to supporters: "These last few months until Election Day won't be easy."

That sentiment applies all around.

The state of the race again shows how certain states take on outsized importance in a contest that is decided by electoral votes, not the popular vote. Only the states considered truly up for grabs get the coveted attention of the candidates and their top surrogates, and of course the onslaught of expensive advertising.

The most contested are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia. Pennsylvania is also in the mix.

Foreign affairs has made a brief run to the front of the campaign, with Romney, who has little experience in that arena, eager to show his standing on his current trip across England, Israel and Poland. Obama has used the power of his office to try to upstage Romney's travels and remind everyone there is only one president.

Yet what matters most is the basic economic condition that people feel in their daily lives.

Economic growth is modest and headed in the wrong direction, new government figures show, and so is monthly job growth. The next jobs snapshot comes next Friday, setting the tone for a month when many Americans will try grab a break but the presidential campaigns will not.

Obama will use much of August to get out of the White House and woo voters in small settings before the more intense travel begins in the fall. That includes stops in Ohio, Florida and Virginia in the coming week. The president, like Romney, often tacks on regional interviews to expand the political reach of every trip.

Romney, since emerging from the GOP primary field, has spent more time meeting privately with donors and family than courting voters. He is expected to switch tactics after returning from overseas, intensifying both his advertising efforts and his campaign schedule.

Between now and the Republican convention in late August, Romney is expected to pick his running mate, which typically gives at least a temporary lift and additional buzz to a campaign. He is widely expected to choose someone perceived as competent but safe, more experience than sizzle.

Money matters deeply, as both sides use advertising to try to undermine the other's credibility or, in softer ads, tell a story about themselves. Romney and the Republican Party have begun to outraise Obama and the Democratic Party, and Romney has more help from well-heeled outside groups known as super political action committees.

While persuasion gets the attention, mobilization could make the difference, particularly in states that could come down to 1 or 2 percentage points.

With Romney overseas, the Obama campaign was holding 4,600 events this weekend, from churches to barber shops, to rally volunteers 100 days out.

The heart of the campaign is still an important choice of economic visions. The tone and the substance often have been far more narrow and biting.

Obama's team has used the summer to dent Romney's economic credentials and trustworthiness. The Obama campaign has hammered the Republican over his unwillingness to release years of tax records and over discrepancies over when he left Bain Capital, at one point suggesting he may have committed a felony.

Romney's team found a foothold by seizing on one line from an Obama speech: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." Romney has used it to paint Obama as a big-government-loving president who does not respect small businesses, forcing Obama himself to counter that he was wildly taken out of context.

Only the movie theater shooting in Colorado had Obama and Romney agreeing, temporarily, on American unity and the need to push aside the trivial.

"Sometimes politics can seem very small," Obama says in one of TV ads, reaching for the positive. "But the choice you face couldn't be bigger."
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