Five weeks out: Clock ticks on Romney and Obama

In a pair of interviews for "60 Minutes," Steve Kroft and Scott Pelley ask President Obama and Mitt Romney about their Medicare plans.

(CBS News) After a solid six months of general election campaigning, the presidential race has entered the home stretch. Election Day is just five weeks away, some states have already begun early voting, and the first of three presidential debates is Wednesday. With polls showing President Obama with a slight lead, Mitt Romney is starting to run out of time to make up ground.

"Time is something you can never get back. Five weeks is going to seem a lifetime and in other ways it's going to go by way too fast," Romney political director Rich Beeson told CBSNews.com.

It's instructive to look at where things stood around this time in previous campaign cycles. Five weeks from Election Day in 2008, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., was reeling from his botched messaging on the financial crisis. Things were not going well: McCain was also forced at the time to pull his resources from the battleground state of Michigan due to limited resources and low approval ratings. Five weeks before the 2004 election, Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., was trying to recover from Swift Boat attacks and make inroads on foreign policy.

Going back to World War II, there are no clear examples of the dynamics of a race changing significantly with only weeks to go, according to Emory political science professor Alan Abramowitz.

There was "a bit of a surprise" in the margin that challenger Ronald Reagan beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter by in 1980, Abramowitz notes, when Reagan won by nearly ten points. There was just one debate in that race, which took place one week before Election Day. "It may have been that there were a lot of late deciders, which is unlikely to be the case now," he said.

The data

In a Washington Post-ABC News Poll released Monday, Mr. Obama had a two point advantage over Romney, 49 percent to 47 percent. Another poll released Monday by Politico and George Washington University showed the same margin. An average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics shows the president with a 3.7 percent lead over Romney.

But the national polls mean little in this election, which will ultimately be decided in the battleground states of Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Mr. Obama leads by a larger margin in many battleground state polls, including one released the last week by Quinnipiac, CBS News and the New York Times that showed the president leading Romney by nine points in Florida, 10 points in Ohio and 12 points in Pennsylvania.  

Pollster Larry Sabato with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics says that the race could tighten. "[T]he fundamentals of this election call for a close election," he said on "Face the Nation" Sunday. "Yes, President Obama is ahead, and probably has the best chance to win, but this is going to be a tighter race than the polls show right now." 

The strategy

Three days after conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote a column titled "End of the Referendum," which made the argument that Romney should frame the election as a choice instead of a referendum on the president's performance, the Romney campaign began to (again) recalibrate its message.

"What we hope people get out of this debate is that choice," GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. Ryan denied a shift in message but called it, "a phase of the campaign we've now entered into."

The message of a choice election was echoed on a conference call for reporters Monday morning. "We will continue to highlight as an area where there is a clear choice between Governor Romney's vision for the country and President Obama's lack of leadership," Romney adviser Kevin Madden said.

Romney has been criticized for being too vague about his own plans. Critics, including on the right, have pushed him to offer details about his own plans instead of just criticizing the president.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been one of his most vocal critics in this area, saying in June that it will be difficult to win if the election is "just about a referendum on Barack Obama." 

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has worked since the beginning of the summer to make the election a choice between the two candidates. The president highlighted that message at the Democratic convention where he called the election "the clearest choice of any time in a generation." 

While the president has also received some criticism for lack of details, with critics saying he has talked little of his second-term plans, his campaign has sought to define Romney as an insensitive corporate executive willing to ship jobs overseas to preserve the bottom line.

"It was brilliant," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist from Massachusetts who worked for John Kerry's campaign. "People forget November elections are always won in June, July and August. He lost some points in favorability but it was a smart investment if you are making a point that sticks with voters."

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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