WEST ALLIS, Wis. — There was a familiar ring to the new speech in which Mitt Romney called Friday for a shared sense of purpose and promised an era of national healing: It sounded very much like the themes Barack Obama ran on four years ago.
“I will lead America to a better place, where confidence in the future is assured, not questioned," the GOP challenger told an ebullient crowd at the Wisconsin state fairgrounds here. “This is not a time for America to settle. We’re four days away from a fresh start, four days away from the first day of a new beginning."
From the start, the two campaigns have had different theories of the race — Romney’s being that it would be a referendum on Obama; Obama’s that it would be a comparative choice between the two candidates. But in the final days, both sides appear to have realized that this election is both. The challenger seeking to unseat an incumbent must make a case for himself. The incumbent seeking to hold on to his office must convince voters not only that the alternative would be worse but also that he has earned the right to another term.
So Obama found himself heading into Election Day in the traditional posture for an incumbent under siege — the fighter, not the conciliator, wiser for the experience.
“I’m a very nice guy, people will tell you. I really am," Obama said. But if “the price of peace in Washington" means cutting deals to slash student financial aid or give health insurance companies more power, “I’m not going to make that deal," the president said at a high school gym in Springfield, Ohio, at the second of three rallies Friday in that crucial state.
And he pledged: “I am a long ways away from giving up on this fight. I got a lot of fight left in me. I don’t get tired. I don’t grow weary."
Adding punctuation to the two candidates’ rhetoric was a fresh monthly jobs report — one that each candidate seized upon to underscore his argument.
Obama pointed to the second straight month of unemployment below 8 percent as evidence that the country was making real progress; Romney said the report was more evidence of how frustratingly slow the recovery has been.
The president challenged Romney’s effort to seize the banner of change. “Now, Governor Romney, he’s a very gifted salesman. So he’s been trying in this campaign, as hard as he can, to repackage these ideas that didn’t work, the very same policies that did not work, and he’s trying to pretend that they’re change. Now, the thing is, we know what change looks like, and what he’s selling ain’t it."
These final pitches are always a tricky balance between inspiring the base to put their hearts into the last few days and winning over the few voters who are still making up their minds.