WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney made their final urgent pleas to voters on Monday in a closing sprint through vital battleground states that will determine who wins their agonizingly close race for the White House.
Both candidates sought to whip up strong turnout from supporters and to sway independent voters to their side in the last hours of a race that polls showed was deadlocked nationally. Obama had a slight lead in the eight or nine battleground states that will decide the race on Tuesday’s Election Day.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll of likely voters, a daily tracking poll, gave Obama a slight edge, with 48 percent support compared to Romney’s 46 percent. The difference was within the 3.4 percentage point credibility interval, which allows for statistical variation in Internet-based polls.
The president, with a final day itinerary that included stops in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, urged voters to stick with him.
The Democratic incumbent, appearing in Madison, Wisconsin, drew a large crowd that was warmed up by Bruce Springsteen and reprised the main theme of the campaign: who can do a better job on the economy.
“This should not be that complicated,” Obama said. “We tried our ideas; they worked. The economy grew. We created jobs. Deficits went down. We tried their ideas; they didn’t work. The economy didn’t grow, not as many jobs, and the deficit went up.”
Romney’s final day included stops in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire. In Lynchburg, Virginia, he told supporters: “One final push is going to get us there.”
To supporters in Sanford, Florida, Romney said: “If you believe we can do better, if you believe America should be on a better course, if you’re tired of being tired, then I ask you to vote for real change.”
The candidates are seeking to piece together the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory in the state-by-state battle for the presidency. Despite the close national opinion polls, Obama has an easier path to victory: if he won the three states he was visiting on Monday - Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa - then he would likely carry the day.
All eyes were on the Midwestern state of Ohio, whose 18 electoral votes could be decisive. Romney, looking for any edge possible, planned last-second visits on Tuesday to both Ohio and Pennsylvania, aides said.
Visits to the areas around Cleveland and Pittsburgh would be aimed at driving turnout. And the Pittsburgh stop could be as much about Ohio as Pennsylvania, since many in eastern Ohio watch Pittsburgh television.
Romney’s path to the White House becomes much harder should he lose Ohio. The state has been leaning toward Obama - its unemployment rate is lower than the 7.9 percent national average and its heavy dependence on auto-related jobs meant the bailout to auto companies that Obama pursued in 2009 is popular.
Both campaigns expressed confidence that their candidate would win, and there were enough polls to bolster either view.
There were clear signs that Obama held an edge. A CNN/ORC poll, for instance, showed him up in Ohio by 50 percent to 47 percent.
The close margins in state and national polls suggested the possibility of a cliffhanger that could be decided by which side has the best turnout operation and gets its voters to the polls.
Whoever wins will have a host of challenges to confront. The top priority will be the looming “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and tax increases that would begin with the new year.
The balance of power in Congress also will be at stake on Tuesday, with Obama’s Democrats now expected to narrowly hold their Senate majority and Romney’s Republicans favored to retain control of the House of Representatives.
In a race where the two candidates and their party allies raised a combined $2 billion, the most in U.S. history, both sides have pounded the heavily contested battleground states with an unprecedented barrage of ads.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell, Frances Kerry, Doina Chiacu