NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – President Barack Obama made a cross-country swing for cash and Hispanic support Monday amid signs that Republican rival Mitt Romney is cutting into his lead in some key swing states as the campaign enters its final four weeks.
Romney tried to keep momentum on his side by bolstering his foreign policy credentials and rallying voters in Virginia, one of the most closely fought battlegrounds. "Things are going pretty good," a visibly upbeat Romney said after turning his motorcade around to pose for pictures with children who lined up to wave as he passed their elementary school.
Romney's commanding debate performance last Wednesday appears to have given him a much-needed psychological and polling boost, as large crowds flocked to his rallies over the weekend. Democrats say private surveys taken after the debate show Romney making progress in many key battleground states after Obama built a lead last month, though they say Obama is still ahead in places like Ohio and Virginia.
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Madison, Wis., said some of the polling in the lead-up to the debate probably overstated Obama's advantage but Romney's performance has created a much more competitive environment.
"To me, so far it looks like maybe it's been a 4- or 5-point movement. That is not insignificant. That's real and worrisome if it holds," Maslin said.
Romney aides on Monday quietly tempered expectations that tightening national polls would translate into success on the ground in the key states most likely to decide the race. Things may be moving in the right direction, they said, but significant work remained.
More than 30 states allow early voting and there are signs that Romney could have an advantage among ballots already cast in the swing states of North Carolina and Florida. Samples are small this early, but the United States Elections Project at George Mason University reports an advantage of more than 20 percentage points in the number of ballots being cast by registered Republicans over Democrats in the two states. Democrats had a 38-percentage-point lead in Iowa.
Obama finally addressed his poor debate performance at a celebrity fundraiser Sunday in Los Angeles, joking that he doesn't always have the flawless nights the star musicians who performed seem to have. But he declared he had the right focus and "I intend to win."
Obama continued his California visit Monday by declaring a national monument at the Keene home of Latino labor leader Cesar Chavez, the United Farmworkers Union founder who died in 1993. Sure to appeal to some Hispanic voters in swing states, Obama's move came at the start of a day in which he will later raise political cash at events in San Francisco.
The Romney campaign tried to raise money with an email appeal warning that Obama and his allies are on the verge of raising $1 billion to hold onto the White House. "We must not let them succeed — we are not letting them succeed," wrote Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades.
The campaigns also were eyeing the next debate Thursday night, the sole faceoff between Vice President Joe Biden and the GOP running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan's challenge is to overcome his lack foreign policy expertise or national debate experience against Biden, who has extensive experience on both fronts.
"Believe you me, I understand this man is extremely experienced, he's a gifted speaker, he's a proven debater," Ryan said on The Frank Beckman Show on Detroit radio station WJR. "So we definitely have our work cut out for us. But the problem the vice president has that he just can't get around is he has to try and defend Barack Obama's record and it's not a very good record to defend."
Romney has shifted his message in recent days to emphasize a moderate tone and a compassionate side he has rarely shown in public. Aides said he would continue to press that message while providing clear contrasts with Obama for the narrow slice of undecided voters.
"Hope is not a strategy," Romney said in the address at Virginia Military Institute. He argued Obama's leadership has been especially lacking in the Middle East as chaos continues to grow.
Monday's foreign policy speech, in which Romney repeatedly assailed Obama's leadership on the world stage, was part of that effort. The former Massachusetts governor is expected to deliver at least two more policy speeches in the coming weeks focused on job growth and debt and spending.
The foreign policy speech sent tough signals to Iran and Syria and portrayed Obama as weak over his administration's changing explanation for the deadly attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. He said he would not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran to keep it from obtaining a nuclear weapon and promised to help get arms to opposition forces in Syria.
"We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds," Romney said.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki dismissed the speech and called Romney inexperienced and clumsy on international issues. She and White House spokesman Jay Carney especially singled out Romney's remarks about Iraq, where Romney said the U.S. has failed to influence events because Obama was unable to secure a "responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains."
"In what seems simply to be an attempt to draw a distinction with this president, without any policy forethought, Gov. Romney is now saying we should have tens of thousands of troops still in Iraq," Carney said. "This president is happy to debate that issue because he profoundly disagrees."
Voters give Obama higher marks than Romney on questions of national security and crisis response, and world affairs in general are a distant priority compared with economic woes, polling shows.
Beyond the speech, Romney has a Virginia rally scheduled Monday evening, followed by events in Iowa and Ohio later in the week. After the California cash rush, Obama was on to Ohio on Tuesday and was expected to campaign in Florida later in the week. He was then to hunker down over the weekend for another round of preparation for the second debate against Romney on Oct. 16 in New York.
Both candidates were getting help for the final push from outside groups. A pro-Obama super political action committee released a TV ad Monday accusing Romney of seeking to slash education funding and college financial aid. The Priorities USA Action spot says Romney would have to make the cuts in order to keep tax breaks for families making more than $250,000 a year.
The ad will run in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin as part of a $30 million campaign the super PAC launched earlier this year.