No more surprises? Obama, Romney fight to finish

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at Springfield High School during a campaign event, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, in Springfield, Ohio.
AP Photo

Now that the final round of pre-election jobs numbers are out, the Obama and Romney campaigns are facing a new reality: For the first time, the parameters of the presidential race appear finally to be set. There are no more debates, no more jobs reports, no more changes in strategy coming down the pike. Something unexpected could take place in the next four days, but it probably won't change the candidates' final push. Their chips, at this point, seem to be in.

That doesn't mean President Obama and Mitt Romney are taking it easy, of course. They're now feverishly crisscrossing the battleground states to make their closing arguments and argue over who is the true candidate of change. At a stop in Wisconsin Friday, Romney cast Mr. Obama as a divisive figure looking to blame the country's problems on others and promised to be a "post-partisan president."

"President Obama promised change, but he could not deliver it," Romney said. "I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it."

Mr. Obama, not surprisingly, doesn't think much of that argument.

"I know what real change looks like, because I've fought for it," he said in Ohio, pointing to his education policy, the rebirth of the American auto industry and investments in clean energy. He argued that "after all we've been through together, we sure can't give up now."

For most of the campaign, Romney's argument has been predicated on the notion that Mr. Obama has failed as a steward of the economy, which happens to be voters' top issue. A good economy come Election Day meant that argument was likely to fail, while a poor economy meant it had a good chance of working. So where do things stand now? The economy appears to be recovering, but not as quickly as anyone would like; unemployment has finally dropped below 8 percent, but just barely. In other words, things appear to be either just good enough to keep the president in office or just bad enough to force him out. No wonder the race is so close.

While most polls show the two candidates splitting the national vote, the battleground picture appears to favor Mr. Obama by a small margin. CBS News estimatesthat there are 255 electoral votes that now lean toward Mr. Obama or are solidly in his column, compared to 206 for Romney. If those votes all go his way - and we should note Mr. Obama's tally includes Ohio, which the campaigns continue to fiercely contest - he needs just 15 electoral votes to win reelection from the remaining eight battleground states.

Polls suggest the president is not likely to get them from North Carolina, where Romney holds a slight lead. But surveys have also consistently shown Mr. Obama with a slight edge in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, states that offer a combined 26 electoral votes. In Florida, Virginia and Colorado - which offer another 51 electoral votes - the race appears to be a tossup. (Early voting numbers in Florida and Colorado have been encouraging for Republicans, though they look better for Democrats in Iowa and Nevada.) Romney is also trying to expand the map and compete in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, though polls suggest Mr. Obama holds a clear lead in all three states. Because Romney needs to win more battlegrounds to reach 270, and because he has fewer states that appear to be tilting his way, he has to be considered the slight underdog in the race.

But let's stress that word "slight." In most states, the race is tight enough that a 2 to 3 point swing in Romney's direction would move the electoral votes into his column - and that assumes the polls are right, an assumption many Republicans have questioned. The challenge for Romney thus seems to be how to get a boost in the final few days. Mr. Obama is unlikely to hand him a gift (in the form of a gaffe) before Election Day, and it didn't help to effectively lose three days of coverage to Superstorm Sandy -- especially since the storm gave Mr. Obama a chance to showcase his leadership. There's no question that Romney got a significant bump following the first presidential debate. But the question lingering over the race now is this: Was it just a little too small - or, perhaps, just a little too early?

With most voters having made up their mind, the winner is expected to be decided largely based on turnout. In most battleground states (Wisconsin is a notable exception), Democrats are seen as having the superior "ground game" and are thus better mobilized to make sure their voters show up. But Romney's voters are more enthusiastic, which suggests his voters don't need to be spurred to get to the polls.

One emerging wildcard: The weather. On the heels of Sandy, which is already poised to complicate voting in some states, meteorologists say the East Coast may have to contend with a nor'easter that hits around Election Day. It's too early to know how or even if the storm will hit. But if it hits hard, it could depress turnout in a number of swing states - a development that would be more likely to favor Romney.