Romney also maintains a Republican base firmly on his side. "This year Republicans would vote for a badly sculpted piece of driftwood over Obama," Sabato said.
The best clue to the race’s trajectory in these last days is the candidates’ travel. According to RealClearPolitics, a nonpartisan website, the contest is now in a virtual tie in 11 states. Romney and Obama plan to spend the first part of this week in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Florida and Wisconsin.
The states to watch, though, could be those where a candidate seemed assured of victory but finds the polls suddenly tightening. An Obama or Romney visit to Michigan, Arizona or Pennsylvania would suggest those states are now in play.
Michigan and Pennsylvania have long been seen as safe Obama states. But RealClearPolitics has both in the "tossup" category, as polls show Obama’s lead is between 4 and 5 percentage points.
"The polls here tightened after the first debate and stayed there," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nonpartisan publication. "Michigan is still in bad shape." And there are still enough voters who fondly remember Romney’s father, George, the state’s governor from 1963 to 1969.
Should Obama start to pull away, the states to watch would be Arizona and North Carolina. Arizona has long been a Republican stronghold. But the president might have a chance if Latino voters turn out in big numbers, said Earl de Berge, editor of the Phoenix-based Rocky Mountain Poll. “There’s real anger in the Latino community" over restrictive, Republican-backed immigration policies, de Berge said. His October 4-10 survey found Hispanic voters favored Obama by a 77 percent to 10 percent margin.
The week’s biggest wild card is the unknown, the "October surprise." Hurricane Sandy is expected to churn up the East Coast this week and could inflict catastrophic damage.
Would that allow Obama to look more presidential as he mobilizes the government’s emergency team? Or would it stall both candidates’ campaigns in East Coast battlegrounds from Florida to New Hampshire?
On the economic front, the government on Friday will release new unemployment figures for October. A month ago, the rate dropped to 7.8 percent, the first time since Obama took office in January 2009 the figure dropped below 8 percent.