By JULIE PACE and STEVE PEOPLES
CINCINNATI - President Barack Obama, seeking to shore up support among women, intensified his pressure Thursday on Mitt Romney to break any ties with a Republican Senate candidate who said that if a woman becomes pregnant from rape it is "something God intended." Romney ignored the emotional social issue, holding to an optimistic campaign tone as he fought for victory in crucial Ohio.
Obama, wrapping up a 40-hour battleground state blitz, also headed to his hometown of Chicago and cast his ballot 12 days before Election Day. The stopover was more than a photo opportunity - it was a high-profile attempt to boost turnout in early voting, a centerpiece of Obama's strategy.
The 2012 presidential contest was expected to cross the $2 billion fundraising mark Thursday, putting the election on track to be the costliest in history. It's being fueled by a campaign finance system vastly altered by the proliferation of "super" political action committees that are bankrolling TV ads in closely contested states.
Back on the campaign trail, the president made repeated, though indirect, references to Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock's controversial comment on rape and pregnancy.
"We've seen again this week, I don't think any male politicians should be making health care decisions for women," Obama told a crowd of about 15,000 on an unseasonably warm fall day in Richmond, Va. The president's aides pressed further, using a web video to highlight Romney's endorsement of Mourdock and to accuse the GOP nominee of kowtowing to his party's extreme elements.
Romney, who appears in a television advertisement declaring his support for Mourdock, brushed aside questions on the matter from reporters throughout the day. He centered his efforts instead on turning his campaign's claims of momentum into a more practical - and ultimately necessary - roadmap to winning the required 270 Electoral College votes. Ohio is crucial to that effort.
"This election is not about me," Romney told a 3,000-person crowd at a southern Ohio manufacturing company. "It's not about the Republican Party. It's about America. And it's about your family."
Romney has disavowed Mourdock's comments, but his campaign says he continues to support the Indiana Republican's Senate candidacy.
Less than two weeks from Election Day, both candidates feverishly campaigned across the country in an exceedingly close race.
Opinion polls show Obama and Romney tied nationally. A new Associated Press-GfK poll of likely voters had Romney up 47 percent to 45 percent, a result within the poll's margin of sampling error. But the race will really be decided by nine or so competitive states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.
The urgent task for both campaigns is to cobble together wins in enough states to cross the 270 threshold.
Obama advisers have identified at least three viable options. Winning Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin would put him over the top, as would winning Ohio, Iowa and Nevada. A five-state combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado would also seal the deal for the president's re-election.
Romney's team has yet to publicly outline any specific pathways to 270. Without a win in Ohio, however, the Republican nominee would have to sweep every other competitive state.
That reality was the motivation behind Romney's daylong swing through three Ohio cities Thursday. Obama was to finish his day in Ohio, too, the final stop on his marathon, two-day drive for votes.
An upbeat Romney proclaimed his campaign had the momentum heading into Election Day. But there were signs in Ohio, as well as Virginia, that his surge following the first debate might have run its course.
In Ohio, internal Republican and Democratic campaign polls this week showed Obama with a lead, just outside the margin of sampling error.
The race in Virginia remains close. Romney has established a slim lead, but the shift toward him seen during the three weeks of debates has slowed or stopped, internal polls from both parties showed.
Romney is hoping to boost his electoral prospects in part by cutting into Obama's long-standing advantage with women. The AP-GfK poll suggested that effort was bearing fruit, with Romney erasing the president's 16-point advantage among female likely voters.
Obama advisers insist they've lost no ground with women. But their eagerness to highlight Romney's connections to Mourdock indicated some degree of nervousness within the campaign.
Romney's campaign reached out to female voters Thursday by sending Ann Romney on daytime's "Rachael Ray" show, where she prepared her meatloaf cakes recipe and took cameras along on a trip to Costco to shop in bulk for family gatherings. Mrs. Romney said that, with 30 mouths to feed, her family always eats buffet-style and that "Mitt is often at the front of the line."
While the campaigns speed ahead, about 7.2 million people already have cast early ballots, either by mail or in person, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University. In all, about 35 percent of the electorate is expected to vote before Election Day. That would be a small increase over 2008.
"I'm told I'll be the first sitting president to take advantage of early voting," Obama said in an email to supporters, urging them to cast their votes before Nov. 6.
As the campaign enters its final days, both sides are focused on winning the increasingly narrow sliver of undecided voters. Obama made a personal appeal to late-deciding voters Wednesday in a conference call from Air Force One. His campaign is also mailing undecided voters copies of a new 20-page booklet featuring Obama's second-term agenda, a collection of policies that have been previously introduced.
The president's campaign also trumpeted the endorsement by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who supported Obama in 2008. Powell praised Obama's handling of the economic recovery, telling "CBS This Morning," ''I think we've begun to come out of the dive and we're gaining altitude."
Elsewhere Thursday, GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan showered attention on Virginia, telling voters in Appalachian coal country that winning a close race won't be enough for the GOP ticket.
"The worst thing that could happen is President Obama gets re-elected and we have more of the same with a debt crisis," Ryan said. "The second worst thing that could happen is we get elected by default, without a mandate."
Vice President Joe Biden took time off the campaign trail to attend a prayer service for former Democratic Sen. George McGovern.
Obama, Romney and their running mates plan to spend nearly every day leading up to the Nov. 6 election pitching for votes in battleground states.
Romney is spending more time in Ohio Friday, and he also has a stop scheduled in Iowa. He is to campaign in Florida and Virginia over the weekend.
The president is making a rare trip to New Hampshire on Saturday. Then he plans to join former President Bill Clinton for a three-state swing Monday through Florida, Ohio and Virginia.