After being ignored for most of the presidential race, Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania is being flooded with television ads, which is a sign that Republican Mitt Romney is either surging or in a frantic search to bag the state's 20 elusive electoral votes.
The campaigns for Mr. Romney and Democrat Barack Obama began advertising in the state this week, following announcements from conservative super-PACs that they would be attacking the incumbent here. The heightened interest comes as polls show Mr. Romney drawing closer to Mr. Obama in the traditional battleground state, despite the GOP's voter registration disadvantage and the state's history of voting for Democratic presidential candidates.
The Obama campaign argues its challenger is only focusing on Pennsylvania because new Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times polling showed Mr. Romney trailing, if barely, in the more critical swing states of Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Coupled with good Democratic early voting numbers in those and other states, the Obama team argued the GOP candidate has been forced to look to Pennsylvania and other reliably Democratic states such as Michigan and Minnesota for wins.
"There is no Romney momentum in the battleground states, there's only smoke and mirrors," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Wednesday. "The Romney campaign has found itself trapped in a tremendously narrow and improbable path to 270 electoral votes and its desperation is palpable."
Romney campaign officials downplayed the Quinnipiac polling, and further countered that late-breaking factors including their candidate's edge with independent voters, low poll numbers for Mr. Obama's job performance and favorability, and swelling enthusiasm in the GOP base would sweep them to landmark wins in Pennsylvania and other states.
With those factors, and the fact Pennsylvania allows no early voting, the state "became a very interesting place for us to go in," Romney political director Rich Beeson told reporters. "Pennsylvania is a place that we decided to wade into as a path to 300 electoral votes."
The GOP campaign is increasing the flow of resources into every state, Mr. Beeson added, not pushing them into Pennsylvania in desperation as the Obama team argues. "It's wishful thinking for them to think that we're diverting any resources. This is opening up yet another front for them to defend."
In the week before the election Pennsylvania is being targeted with at least $8 million in presidential ads, many of them from such Romney SuperPAC allies as Restore Our Future, Americans for Job Security, American Crossroads (helmed by George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove) and Americans for Prosperity (tied to the conservative Koch brothers). The Romney campaign began running spots across the state, too, and the Obama camp responded with $1.6 million in its own spots.
Despite their public confidence in retaining Pennsylvania -- where Mr. Obama won by 10 percentage points in 2008 -- Obama officials said they planned to sink TV money into it or any other state where GOP forces are trying to compete with them.
"We're doing it because it is the prudent thing to do. We're not going to cede any state in this race," senior political adviser David Axelrod said.
A poll released Wednesday by Franklin & Marshall University showed Mr. Obama ahead of Mr. Romney, 48 to 44 percent in Pennsylvania with 5 percent undecided. A month ago the Democrat led the poll by 11 points but since then the Republican was buoyed by good numbers with independent voters and an edge in positive views of his economic plans.
Mr. Romney is "starting [to] move whole groups of voters in various categories, and that's important," F&M pollster Terry Madonna said in an interview.
The numbers are enticing for Mr. Romney but they were for other Republicans in the state: George W. Bush lost the state by 2.5 percentage points in 2004 and 4.2 points in 2000.
In the U.S. Senate race, the poll has Democratic incumbent Bob Casey leading GOP challenger Tom Smith, 46 to 35 percent.
The presidential race isn't the only one bombarding Pennsylvania -- and Pittsburgh especially -- with ads.
New figures released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation showed more outside money, $9.37 million, has been spent on the suburban 12th District congressional race between Democrat Mark Critz and Republican Keith Rothfus than in any other congressional race nationwide. Counting ads in every race on the Nov. 6 ballot, Pittsburgh has hosted the fifth most ad reservations nationwide following Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; Norfolk, Va.; and West Palm Beach, Fla.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM