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After the Storm, Sprint Resumes

President Barack Obama returns to the campaign trail today, joining Mitt Romney in a final sprint to Election Day as polls continue to show a tight race.

Obama remained focused Wednesday on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, touring devastated portions of New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, an outspoken surrogate for Romney’s campaign who nonetheless has praised the Obama administration’s response to the storm.

“We’re going to have a lot of work to do. … But what I can promise you is the federal government will be working as closely as possible with the state and local officials, and we will not quit until this is done,” Obama said as Christie stood behind him.

The storm has given Obama an opportunity to show presidential leadership in responding to a crisis that knocked the election from the top of the news cycle. But it also pulled the president off the campaign trail, and on Wednesday the campaign resumed without him as Romney and Vice President Joseph Biden delivered stump speeches in Florida.

Obama will begin making up for lost time today in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado before heading to Ohio for appearances Friday. On Saturday, he will be in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Virginia and will appear Sunday in New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio and Colorado, according to the campaign.

“We owe it to people to make the final arguments,” senior strategist David Axelrod said.

Romney continues to crisscross the country, with events Thursday in Virginia and Friday in Ohio. He has scheduled  events in New Hampshire and Colorado on Saturday, with more states expected to be added to the schedule.

Both campaigns plan to continue their tours of swing states in the coming days, with Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire getting the most attention.

The Romney campaign insisted Wednesday that it has gained enough ground to make three more states legitimate battlegrounds. Polling in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota has shown Obama’s advantage in each of those states narrowing to within several points.

The two camps held competing conference calls with reporters Wednesday to spin the latest state of play and recent polls, which offer a mixed bag but generally portray the race as close to tied nationally, while Obama has an edge in most polls of key swing states.

The Romney camp portrayed its spending in the newly minted battleground states as signs of strength, noting that it is  consistently stronger in polls  among independents and contending that  Republicans remain more enthusiastic about voting. “This race is exactly where we hoped it would be,” Romney senior adviser Russ Schriefer said. “We have lots of states that are in play … We have an incumbent president who is stuck well below the 50 percent threshold.”

Political director Rich Beeson said the Romney campaign is using money flowing into the campaign to open new fronts and put Obama on the defensive, while continuing to close gaps in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin. “Right now their firewall is burning,” he said.

The Obama campaign dismissed the effort as a desperation move and said key states — especially Ohio — remain out of reach for the Republicans. Axelrod went so far as to bet the mustache he’s sported for 40 years that Obama will win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota. “It’s break-glass time in Boston,” Axelrod said. “I’ve put my mustache on the line.”

Axelrod declined to stake his mustache on Virginia. “I can only bet my mustache once,” he said.

Most polls show Obama maintaining a lead in Ohio. A Quinnipiac poll found Obama up by 5 points, but the latest Rasmussen poll showed him down 2 points — 50-48. The Rasmussen poll showed Romney losing 62-36 among early voters, and the Obama campaign suggested Wednesday that the president’s leads among early voters in Ohio, Nevada and other states are becoming close to insurmountable on Election Day. The Romney campaign disputed those statistics, contending that Romney is doing better in several states than Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) did in 2008.

Another bone of contention is Florida, which has cut the number of early voting days this year, potentially limiting what has been a Democratic strength.

But no issue may matter more for Obama than the popularity of the auto industry bailout in Ohio, given the Chrysler and General Motors Co. plants and suppliers there. Obama’s campaign on Wednesday ripped into a new Romney ad saying that the companies would move jobs to China — an allegation denied by GM and Chrysler executives.

During an appearance in Florida on  Wednesday, Biden called the ad “an outrageous lie” aimed at scaring auto workers and their families.

Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan responded to Biden’s charge with a blast of his own. “American taxpayers are on track to lose $25 billion as a result of President Obama’s handling of the auto bailout, and GM and Chrysler are expanding their production overseas,” the Wisconsin lawmaker said. “These are facts that voters deserve to know as they listen to the claims President Obama and his campaign are making.”

“In keeping with the Halloween season,” Axelrod said, Romney is trying to “masquerade as a champion of the auto industry.”

“Romney is not going to fool the people of Ohio,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, noting Ohio and Michigan newspapers reported GM and Chrysler executives blasting the Romney ad.

Messina also said the Romney camp is resurrecting the “welfare lie” that the administration has eliminated work requirements. “They’re flailing because they can read the polls just like we can,” he said.

Schriefer, meanwhile, declined to complain about Christie’s effusive praise of the president, or of Obama’s performance. Christie “is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing as governor of New Jersey, and the president is doing what he needs to be doing,” Schriefer said.

Indeed, the last thing the Romney campaign wanted to appear was unsympathetic to the plight of people hurt by the storm. But after holding hastily rebranded hurricane relief rallies on Tuesday, the campaign was back to more familiar “victory” rallies, with Romney making his pitch that it’s time for a change.

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