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First Thoughts: Returning to the trail

Beginning to return to the trail after Sandy: Romney campaigns in Florida… But Obama stays off the trail to inspect the damage in Atlantic City with Gov. Christie… Reading the body language with six days to go… Chrysler, GM push back against the Romney campaign… Will the Super PACs move the needle?... Or will the Obama campaign have gotten the bigger bang for its buck?

Mitt Romney resumes a full campaign schedule Wednesday in Florida after taking a break Tuesday to encourage storm donations to the Red Cross. Meanwhile, President Obama will spend another day focused on Sandy recovery efforts. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Returning to the trail: With just six days until Election Day, we begin to see a return to the campaign trail. Mitt Romney stumps in the battleground of Florida, while Joe Biden also is in the Sunshine State, Bill Clinton hits Iowa, and Paul Ryan visits Wisconsin. But President Obama remains off the trail -- he instead inspects the damage from Sandy with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Atlantic City at 1:00 pm ET. (Who would have ever thought that it would be Obama, and not Romney, spending time with Christie in the last week of the election? What a picture that will be today.) With Obama in New Jersey, Romney’s return to the campaign trail is a bit tricky. “The former Massachusetts governor must show respect for the superstorm’s casualties all along the Eastern Seaboard,” the AP writes. “But Romney can ill afford to waste a minute of campaign time, with the contest virtually deadlocked in several key states.” And here is something to chew on: Given how close this election is, it won’t be surprising if the losing side ends up blaming Sandy, whether it’s fair or not. You could argue that Sandy has both elevated the president and stopped the momentum narrative for Romney. But you could also contend that Sandy has kept the president off the campaign trail for at least three days. Just like Kerry partisans blamed bin Laden video in ’04, Bush folks blamed the DUI story in ’00 and McCain folks blamed Lehman collapse in ’08, Sandy will get the blame from the losing side, period.

*** Reading the body language: So who is ahead in this presidential contest? If you look at the national polls (Pew, NPR, New York Times/CBS), it’s a dead heat. If you look at the key battleground-state polls -- like today’s New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac surveys of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia -- then you see that Obama is slightly ahead in the pursuit of 270 electoral votes. But if you look at the campaigns’ body language, it’s hard not to conclude that Romney’s folks believe they are behind, at least when it comes to Ohio. And if they believe Ohio is the “be all, end all,” then they are behind. For starters, as we wrote yesterday, the Romney camp likely doesn’t air these Jeep ads if it’s winning the Buckeye State. And now you have GM and Chrysler pushing back against the campaign (see below). In addition, Romney is campaigning in Florida (today) and Virginia (tomorrow), which are two states he HAS to win and two states that two weeks ago seemed to be trending ever-so-slightly to Romney. Finally, all of this talk about expanding the map to Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania perhaps suggests a campaign looking for new routes to 270, especially with Romney trailing in Ohio per most polls. Yes, polls are closing in all three states. But if there was a concerted effort to put the three on the map, where was Romney campaign three months ago? Where were the outside groups SIX months ago? (Yes, we know American Future Fund has been alone in Minnesota for weeks, and they do potentially deserve credit on the GOP side for keeping the state close, but we digress.) It’s likely that both campaigns’ spin is right: Momentum has closed the race in the Lean Dem states, but Obama’s Ohio firewall also seems to be holding up.

Reuters, Getty Images

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

*** Chrysler, GM push back against Romney campaign: Have the Romney campaign’s controversial Jeep ads (on TV and radio) backfired? Well, it’s never a good development when the automakers are pushing back against the Romney camp. The New York Times: “‘The ad is cynical campaign politics at its worst,’ Greg Martin, a spokesman for General Motors, said in an interview late Tuesday. ‘We think creating jobs in the U.S. and repatriating profits back in this country should be a source of bipartisan pride.’ General Motors was pulled into the fray on Tuesday after Mr. Romney began running a new radio advertisement in which an announcer says, ‘Barack Obama says he saved the auto industry, but for who, Ohio or China?’” Also: “In an e-mail to employees on Tuesday, Chrysler’s executive, Sergio Marchionne, said that Jeep’s commitment to the United States was unequivocal. ‘I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China,’ he wrote. ‘It is inaccurate to suggest anything different.’” Question: Would the Romney camp have aired these ads if they knew they would get this kind of pushback? This goes back to our body language point above: These ads suggest that the Romney NEEDED to do something to change the political dynamic in Ohio.

*** Will the Super PACs move the needle? A week from now, we’ll have a true test case about the power of Super PACs in this presidential election. Out of the whopping $127.5 million being spent on advertisements in the final week of this race, Team Romney has a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over Team Obama, $82.9 million to $44.6 million. While the Obama campaign is the largest single advertiser this week, the Republican Super PACs are more than making up the difference. Here’s the breakdown: Obama $34.2 million, Romney $29.1 million, American Crossroads $24.1 million, Restore Our Future $17.4 million, Priorities USA Action $10.1 million, RNC $3.5 million, Americans for Job Security $2.2 million. Will that GOP advantage -- fueled by the Super PACs -- move the needle? Or are the battleground states already fully saturated in TV ads? We’ll find out Tuesday night. By the way, to put this week’s $127.5 million in perspective, Bush and Gore in 2000 had a COMBINED $136 million to spend in the general election (after the conventions).

*** Or will the Obama camp have gotten the better bang for its buck? But don’t forget this very important caveat: Because Super PACs have to pay a higher advertising rate and because the Obama camp has been maximizing its ad spending, the difference in actual advertising spots and points is likely much narrower and probably close to even. In fact, this might be the biggest underreported story of this election cycle. (NBC’s ad trackers say that the outside groups get about half, if not a third, of the per-dollar points that the candidates do.) To date, nearly $1 billion -- $951.9 million, to be exact -- has been spent on the presidential contest in the general election. Team Romney has outspent Team Obama, $559.1 million to $392.8 million. The largest advertisers: Obama $329 million, Romney $208 million, Restore $87 million, American Crossroads $87 million, Crossroads GPS $63 million, Priorities $57 million, Americans for Prosperity $46.5 million, RNC $29 million, Americans for Job Security $12.5 million, American Future Fund $7.8 million, NRA $5.1 million, Concerned Women $4.8 million.

*** Storm wreaks havoc on election preparations: States and local municipalities up and down the East Coast are having to adjust after Hurricane Sandy brought devastation leaving more than million people still without power. Where some of the biggest impact of the storm was felt – the Jersey Shore, they don’t even have power in the clerk’s office in Ocean County, they are having trouble reaching polling location leaders because so many don’t have power, and many roads remain impassable making it difficult to check on whether those locations are flooded and usable for Election Day. Officials said they’ll have a better idea in five or six days, and we’re just six days from Election Day now. Like in other states, they are extending early voting hours. In New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, there are concerns about what to do about flooded locations designated for polling, and coastal counties are struggling to assess whether power outages might force changes to polling locations. In Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, early voting was canceled for a second day, but like in New Jersey will be extended starting tomorrow in some places. For a full wrap, check out NBCNews.com’s Tom Curry’s story here.

*** On the trail: Obama inspects the hurricane damage in Atlantic City, NJ at 1:00 pm ET… Romney, in Florida, holds rallies in Tampa (with Senate candidate Connie Mack) at 11:10 am ET and in Miami (with Marco Rubio) at 2:20 pm ET… Bill Clinton stumps for Obama in Iowa, hitting Council Bluffs, Mason City, and Waterloo… Joe Biden is in Florida… Paul Ryan is in Wisconsin… And Ann Romney visits Ohio.

Countdown to Election Day: 6 days

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