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Romney, Obama camps spar over who's really winning

 

Despite Hurricane Sandy touching down on the East Coast today, both campaigns continue to jockey behind the scenes for who has the momentum in the presidential race.

The latest is over whether Republican challenger Mitt Romney is making up so much ground on President Barack Obama that he is expanding the map into places like Pennsylvania and even Minnesota – or whether Romney’s path is so limited that he needs to find new states to put in play.

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There is some evidence for the expansion and tightened battleground landscape. There is a new poll today, for example, from the University of Cincinnati showing Romney closing the gap in Ohio to a tied race, 49 to 49 percent.

Some polls in the Keystone State in recent weeks have showed Romney within 5 points, but the Romney campaign has not made a serious play for the state, booking no ads despite those public polls. A poll out today from the Philadelphia Inquirer shows Obama up 49 to 43 percent. That’s a slight improvement for Romney from earlier this month, when Obama was up 50 to 42 percent.

The pro-Romney outside group Restore Our Future, however, is now giving it another shot in Pennsylvania, booking $2 million in ads for this week.

Obama Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter talks about the potential impact the hurricane could have on the president's campaign.

The Obama campaign says it will respond with ads of its own, because it’s not “going to take anything for granted right now,” Campaign Manager Jim Messina said on a conference call with reporters, but the campaign categorically denies that it is seeing any momentum for Romney in its data.

"I don't want to be ambiguous about this at all: We're winning this race,” Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said on the call, “and I say that not on the basis of some mystical faith in a wave that's going to come...We base it on cold, hard data. … In just eight days, we'll know who was bluffing and who wasn't."

Two polls in Minnesota show two different stories – one from Mason-Dixon showing a 4-point race, 47 to 43 percent with Obama leading; the other from St. Cloud University has it Obama 53 percent, Romney 45 percent, close to the president’s 2008 margin. The Obama campaign began running advertising in Minneapolis last week, which it said is intended for Wisconsin, but it is also dispatching former President Bill Clinton to Minnesota for two campaign events tomorrow.

The Obama campaign says Clinton is headed to Minnesota to rally activists, many of whom do door-knocking in neighboring Wisconsin.

“President Clinton’s visit is part of a multi-state swing to battleground states as well as areas with a strong Democratic base,” said Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, “and he’s starting in the Midwest, in part, because of weather concerns out East. We’ve had a strong organization in place for months in Minnesota, and our staff and volunteers there have played a key role in supporting our massive grassroots operations in Wisconsin and Iowa. This visit will help fire up our supporters who we need to help us turn out every vote possible heading into the final week.”

The October surprise came later than usual and the campaigns are left with big decisions – how will the weather we're seeing along the East Coast impact strategy in the battleground states going forward. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

Republicans don't see it that way.

“The Obama campaign continued with their desperate and flailing spin in an attempt to explain why suddenly states that were never considered in play are up for grabs," Romney Political Director Rich Beeson said in a statement. "We’ve said all along this election is a choice between the status quo and real change – change that offers promise that the future will be better than the past. President Obama’s misguided policies and broken promises have let down millions of Americans, and we’re seeing the effects of that in states across the country with more support and enthusiasm for Governor Romney every day we get closer to November 6th."

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski accused the Obama campaign of being "extremely defensive about Pennsylvania." She added in an email to reporters, "Oh, and Axelrod made it two days in a row that the campaign has attacked the Des Moines Register. You’re right Axe, 8 days and we’ll see who is bluffing."

The Des Moines Register endorsed Romney on Saturday after endorsing Obama in 2008. 

Pro-Romney outside groups are flush with cash and have tried to test the waters in various states previously -- spending millions in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Michigan -- to try and move the needle to no avail. Despite Minnesota not going Republican since 1972 -- the longest streak outside of Washington, D.C. -- outside groups took a shot there early on.  In 2008, Minnesota, which Obama won 54 to 44 percent, was actually closer than Michigan.

The Romney campaign, with the help of outside groups is hoping for a late surge. Currently, its path is very narrow. It almost has to run the table or at least win most of the remaining crucial tossups, like Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Outside of Wisconsin, those were all states won by George W. Bush (R) in 2004.

"What the facts and numbers clearly show is that the president is going to win this election,” Messina said, contending, “We're leading in every battleground state." He added, “The Romney campaign wants you to think it's expanding the map, but it's not. … The reason they're expanding the map is because they're down in the places they need to get 270 electoral votes. … We're not going to take anything for granted, and we're going to continue to make sure we're doing what we need to do on the ground.”

Just today, a CNN poll in Florida showed Romney up 50 to 49 percent. And a Pew national poll showed the race dead even at 47 percent between the two candidates.

NBC’s and others’ polling have shown tight races in Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. Even today, an Elon poll showed even North Carolina, a state which NBC has Lean Romney, a tossup, 45 to 45 percent.

Reuters, Getty Images

In the final push in the 2012 presidential election, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their last appeals to voters.

Romney has undoubtedly made gains nationally and in battlegrounds after the president’s lackluster first presidential debate. Despite the president winning the next two debates, the damage was done. Romney pulled even or ahead in Colorado and Virginia and now seems a very narrow favorite in Florida, a state he must win. There’s almost no conceivable path to 270 for Romney without it.

The question is, however, whether Romney can make up enough ground in places like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, where the president retains structural advantages.

Because of the auto bailout, President Obama has maintained a lead over Romney in Ohio. It’s why there has been a push from Romney since the last debate to shift his auto-bailout messaging. If Romney’s latest salvo on the auto bailout doesn't catch on in the Northwestern part of the state, it may be difficult to see him make up the necessary ground.

It’s impossible to know where the race will be in eight days. But the reality remains that Romney has made up ground, but in the battlegrounds and nationally, it is what it has been -- exceedingly tight.

NBCNews.com’s Michael O’Brien and NBC's Mark Murray contributed to this report.