The debates over, we're now in the Battle of Verdun phase of the 2012 campaign.
It is a bloody war of attrition over tiny pieces of real estate: those remaining undecided or "persuadable" voters scattered throughout 10 battleground states that will decide the outcome.
President Barack Obama leads, but by a dwindling and no longer comfortable margin, in the Electoral College, according to a consensus of the polls. His latest email message to his supporters, "Stick with Me," sounded more like a plea for mercy than a call to arms.
Lawyers in both camps are preparing for what could be another disputed election, in which recounting votes might be required or demanded, this time likely not in Florida but in one or more other states. Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chairman, said one of those states might be Iowa with its complex counting and recounting procedures, which GOP election lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg has studied in detail.
In the fog of this war, there are rampant rumors about which side is moving troops where, about who is "pulling out" or "moving in" to which swing state, about who is making a big last-minute ad buy in which media market. It sounds like trivial mechanics. Yet it is serious, deadly serious, and may be decisive.
The race comes down to 10 states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Those 10 could produce a wide variety of outcomes, including one in which Obama loses the popular vote (because of a huge vote against him in the South) but wins the Electoral College (with bicoastal and Great Lakes states) or even a possible tie in the Electoral College, which would probably mean a Romney win in a constitutionally mandated House vote.
In the meantime, the Obama and Romney campaigns aren't focused just on states and cities, but on individual categories of voters in each place, including:
• Military veterans in southern Virginia. The president has targeted veterans, especially younger ones, from the beginning of his presidency. They are an enormous constituency in the state, which Obama won in 2008, the first Democratic presidential contender to do so since 1964. Obama's joke about "horses and bayonets" got a laugh in the debate hall Monday night, but might not have helped him with Navy vets, who love their ships and want more of them built. Romney proposes to do just that -- an especially popular idea in the Norfolk, Va., area, where the fleet is based.
• Jews in Florida. Matt Brooks of the conservative Republican Jewish Coalition claims that Romney will win 35 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide, the largest percentage for a modern GOP presidential contender since Ronald Reagan's record-setting 39 percent in 1980. In 2008, Sen. John McCain won only 22 percent against Obama. On Monday night, the candidates tried to outdo each other in their fealty to Israel, but most Jews are more motivated by domestic social, moral and economic issues and remain mostly loyal Democrats. Still, if Romney does better than average -- and he is trying hard -- that could be decisive in Florida.
• Coal-field voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The heart of the Eastern coal fields -- West Virginia and Kentucky -- have been in Romney's column from the start, but significant mining areas remain up for grabs in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obama has tried hard not to concede this vote, touting his devotion to "clean coal" and shale gas drilling, and airing an ad reminding voters that Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, said that coal-fired power "kills." But it's hard for Obama to compete with the GOP on who is more devoted to digging and drilling.
• Independent white-collar women in Colorado, New Hampshire and Northern Virginia. Some female voters are late deciders because they are torn between two essentially libertarian impulses: They are Republicans on economics and business regulation, but Democrats on issues such as abortion, gay rights, contraception and education spending. Both campaigns are targeting this group, perhaps more than any other, with advertising in major markets such as Denver, Boston/Manchester, N.H., and the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
• Catholics in the Midwest (Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin). The contest continues between two aspects of the church's mission: protecting the sanctity of life, even the unborn, and advancing social justice and good works -- and government support for good works. Both sides are paying special attention to places such as Dubuque, Iowa, a Catholic center in an otherwise largely mainline Protestant and evangelical Christian swing state.
• Hispanics in Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Obama needs them to turn out, and his staff has built a voter identification and turnout machine they claim is unrivaled in the history of presidential politics. But will it work on the notoriously lax Latino vote? If the president hopes to win reelection, he'll have to conquer these last yards.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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