DOSWELL, Va. -- Five days before the election, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama vied forcefully for the mantle of change Thursday in a nation thirsting for it after a painful recession and uneven recovery, pressing intense closing arguments in their unpredictably close race for the White House. Early voting topped 22 million ballots.
Republicans launched a late push in Pennsylvania, long viewed as safe for Mr. Obama. The party announced a $3 million ad campaign that told voters who backed the president four years ago, "it's OK to make a change." The Obama campaign was increasing its ad buy in Pennsylvania following the Republican National Committee move, an aide said, while declining to cite just how much the campaign planned to spend.
The Romney camp is following the major late-money infusion into Pennsylvania with an investment of its most precious resource -- the candidate's time. The campaign confirmed a report in The Daily that Mr. Romney would make a stop Sunday in Southeast Pennsylvania. It will be the candidate's first visit here since well before the Republican convention in late August.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney's running mate, was already slated to stop Saturday at Harrisburg Airport for his second state visit in a week.
While recent Pennsylvania polls still show an advantage for Mr. Obama, they have also shown some movement in Mr. Romney's direction. A Franklin & Marshall College survey released earlier this week showed Mr. Obama leading his challenger 49 percent to 45 percent. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer survey put the race at 49 percent to 43 percent in the president's favor.
The last-minute scheduling decision follows a late wave of ad purchases by the Romney campaign and allied political action committees, that, according to NBC, will see Republicans outspending Team Obama by a margin of $10.8 million to $2.9 million in the race's closing days.
A three-day lull after Superstorm Sandy ended abruptly Thursday with the president campaigning briskly across three battleground states, and Mr. Romney piling up three stops in a fourth. The Republican also attacked with a tough new Spanish-language TV ad in Florida showing Venezuela's leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, and Cuban leader Raul Castro's daughter, Mariela, saying they'd vote for Mr. Obama.
The storm intruded once again into the race, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed the president in a statement that said Sandy, which devastated his city, could be evidence of climate change. Of the two White House rivals, the mayor wrote: "One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics."
The ever-present polls charted a close race for the popular vote, and a series of tight battleground surveys suggested that neither man could be confident of success in the contest for the 270 electoral votes that will decide the winner.
Obama aides left North Carolina off the president's itinerary in the campaign's final days, a decision Republicans trumpeted as a virtual concession of the state. Yet the Romney team omitted Ohio and Wisconsin from a list of battleground states where it claimed narrow advantage.
Republicans said the decision for Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan to campaign in the Keystone State reflected late momentum, while Democrats called it mere desperation. "It is an improbable uphill climb for Mitt Romney to win a state where he has never been up in a single poll, he has no ground game, and we have a voter registration advantage of more than 1 million people," Obama spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said.
Mr. Romney and allies also made late investments in Minnesota and Michigan, states that went comfortably for Mr. Obama in 2008 but poll much closer four years later.
In a possible boost for Mr. Obama, government and private sources on Thursday churned out a spate of encouraging snapshots on the economy, long the race's dominant issue. Reports on home prices, worker productivity, auto sales, construction spending, manufacturing and retail sales suggested that the recovery was picking up its pace, and a consumer confidence measure rose to its highest level since February of 2008, nearly five years ago.
Still, none of the day's data packed the political significance of the campaign's final unemployment report, due today. Joblessness was measured at 7.8 percent in September, falling below 8 percent for the first time since Mr. Obama took office.
Unemployment alone explained the competition to be the candidate of change, a slogan Mr. Obama made his own in 2008 but struggles to hold now.
"Real Change On Day One," read a huge banner at Mr. Romney's first appearance of the day, in Roanoke, Va., and the same on a podium sign in Doswell.
"This is a time for greatness. This is a time for big change, for real change," said the former Massachusetts governor, a successful businessman who says his background gives him the know-how to enact policies that will help create jobs. "I'm going to make real changes. I'm going to get this economy going -- from Day One we're making changes."
Mr. Obama seemed intent on making up for lost campaign time after a three-day turn as hands-on commander of the federal response to Sandy, although aides stressed that he remained in touch with the administration's point man, FEMA Director Craig Fugate, and local officials.
A day after touring storm-battered New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, he walked off Air Force One in Green Bay, Wis., wearing a leather bomber jacket and promptly lit into Mr. Romney. In the campaign's final weeks, his rival "has been using all his talents as a salesman to dress up" policies that led to the nation's economic woes. "And he is offering them up as change," Mr. Obama said. "What the governor is offering sure ain't change. Giving more power back to the biggest banks isn't change.," he said.
Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole contributed.
First Published November 2, 2012 4:00 AM