PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Reaching for the finish line, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama embarked Saturday on the final 72-hour haul of their long, grinding quest for victory, swatting at one another over what should motivate Americans to vote and making closing arguments that offer dueling pictures of what the next four years can and should bring.
Romney opened a three-state campaign day in New Hampshire by faulting Obama for telling supporters a day earlier that voting would be their “best revenge”
“Vote for ‘revenge?”’ the GOP candidate asked, oozing incredulity. “Let me tell you what I’d like to tell you: Vote for love of country. It is time we lead America to a better place.”
The GOP nominee released a TV ad carrying the same message.
Whatever their motivation, nearly 26 million Americans already have cast ballots in early voting around the country. On the last day of early voting in Florida, voters at some sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were waiting up to four hours to cast ballots.
Obama tended to presidential business before politics Saturday as he led a briefing at the government’s disaster relief agency on the federal response to Superstorm Sandy. He said the recovery effort still has a long way to go but pledged a “120 percent effort” by all those involved.
“There’s nothing more important than us getting this right,” Obama said, keenly aware that a spot-on government response to the storm also was important to his political prospects. Then he began his own three-state campaign day in Ohio, the biggest battleground of Campaign 2012.
After holding mostly small and midsize rallies for much of the campaign, Obama’s team is planning a series of larger events this weekend aimed at drawing big crowds in battleground states. Still, the campaign isn’t expecting to draw the massive audiences Obama had in the closing days of the 2008 race, when his rallies drew more than 50,000.
Obama’s closing weekend also includes two joint events with former President Bill Clinton: a rally Saturday night in Virginia and an event Sunday in New Hampshire. The two presidents had planned to campaign together across three states earlier this week, but that trip was called off because of Sandy. And, of course, there is always Ohio.
In a whiff of 2008 nostalgia, some of Obama’s traveling companions from his campaign four years ago were planning to join him on the road for the final days of his last campaign. Among them are Robert Gibbs, who served as Obama’s first White House press secretary, and Reggie Love, Obama’s former personal aide who left the White House earlier this year.
Likewise, virtually Romney’s entire senior team has left the campaign’s Boston headquarters to travel with Romney for the contest’s final three days. Their presence for the campaign’s waning hours is an admission that the strategy and planning is largely complete. His schedule has been set, the ads have been placed and Romney’s message has been decided.
The tight inner circle that has worked with him for several years in most cases plan to enjoy the final moments on the campaign trail as Romney’s side.
“It’s been a long road,” Ann Romney told reporters aboard the campaign plane, offering breakfast pastries to Secret Service agents and reporters alike. After campaigning on her own for the past month, she joined her husband for the final swing.
Romney hosted a massive rally Friday night in West Chester, Ohio, drawing more than 10,000 people to the Cincinnati area for an event that featured rock stars, sports celebrities and dozens of Republican officials. It was a high-energy event on a cold night designed to kick off his own sprint to the finish.
Romney arrived in New Hampshire close to midnight on Friday after an 18-hour day on the campaign trail that took him from Virginia to Wisconsin to Ohio. After his morning rally on the New Hampshire seacoast, he was making an afternoon appearance in Iowa and two more in Colorado. He shifted an original plan to campaign in Nevada on Sunday in favor of a schedule likely to bring him back to Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
On Saturday, Obama’s first stop was in Mentor, Ohio, then he was campaigning in Milwaukee and Dubuque, Iowa, and ending the day in Bristow, Va. On Sunday, he was taking his campaign to New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado and, yes, Ohio.
GOP running mate Paul Ryan was in Ohio, too, and he took issue Saturday with Obama’s “revenge” comment.
“We don’t believe in revenge; we believe in change and hope,” he said “We actually do.”
Polling shows the race remains a toss-up heading into the final days. But Romney still has the tougher path; he must win more of the nine most-contested states to reach 270 electoral votes: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney has added Pennsylvania to the mix, hoping to end a streak of five presidential contests where the Democratic candidate prevailed in the state. Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 10 percentage points in 2008; the latest polls in the state give him a 4- to 5-point margin. Romney will campaign in the Philadelphia suburbs on Sunday. Obama aides scoff at the Romney incursion, but they are carefully adding television spending in the state and are sending Clinton to campaign there Monday.
In crucial early voting, Obama holds an apparent lead over Romney in key states. But Obama’s advantage isn’t as big as the one he had over John McCain four years ago, giving Romney hope that he could make up that gap in Tuesday’s election.
About 26 million people already have voted in 34 states and the District of Columbia. No votes will be counted until Election Day, but several battleground states are releasing the party affiliation of people who have voted early. So far, Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. Republicans have the edge in Colorado.
Kuhnhenn reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington, Kasie Hunt in New Hampshire and Phil Elliott in Ohio contributed to this report.