WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- With the economy showing some signs of improvement three weeks before Election Day, President Barack Obama on Monday laid down a full embrace of the economic record many Republicans say is his biggest weakness.
The president's first act in this critical campaign week was to announce a new battleground state advertisement featuring voters discussing the ways their economic conditions have improved during his term. The ad was hitting the airwaves as Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney huddled in intense preparation for their second debate as polls show a closely fought campaign.
"This race is tied," Obama said in an appeal to supporters asking them to donate at least $5 to his re-election effort. He promised to be "fighting" for the election on the debate stage Tuesday night -- something many of his supporters thought he did too little of in his first face-off with Romney.
Early voting is under way in dozens of states, giving the candidates little chance to recover from any slip-ups that come in these final days. Obama has been trying to get his supporters to lock in their choice now, and his campaign announced Monday that he and his wife, Michelle, would become the first president and first lady to cast their ballots early.
Obama planned to vote early during a visit to his home state of Illinois next week, while Michelle Obama told a rally in Delaware, Ohio, that she dropped her absentee ballot in the mail Monday. "For me, it was Election Day," she said.
Even as polls show the race tightening nationally and in battleground states, Obama's campaign aides say they are encouraged by public and private surveys showing voters growing more confident about the direction of the economy. Those trends are behind the new 30-second spot the campaign is running in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Virginia.
"Stick with this guy," a gravelly voiced man says at the end of the commercial in a point Obama hopes wavering voters will embrace. A second ad targeted at Ohio voters features former astronaut and Sen. John Glenn touting Obama's character and economic record.
Aides argue that some voters got a psychological boost when the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent last month for the first time since Obama's inauguration. But the campaign says it puts more stock in economic indicators showing an increase in consumer confidence and retail spending, which indicate shifts in voter behavior.
Retail sales rose 1.1 percent last month, the Commerce Department said Monday. That followed a 1.2 percent increase in August, which was revised slightly higher. Both were the largest gains since October 2010.
Still, with millions of Americans still out of work, the campaign is trying to walk a fine line between touting economic gains and acknowledging that many voters are still struggling.
GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan lambasted Obama's handling of the deficit during an appearance Monday in Ryan's home state of Wisconsin. He pointed to a digital scoreboard his campaign set up at the far end of Carroll University's field house that tracked the growth of the nation's deficit in real time.
"Look at how fast those numbers are running," Ryan said. "We know without a shred of doubt that we have consigned the next generation to this path of debt."
He acknowledged that Obama inherited "a tough situation" when he took office but argued the president has only made things worse. He touted Romney's plan to cut taxes by 20 percent across the board as the path back to economic growth.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the president would seek to run on his economic record, not away from it, during Tuesday's debate.
"He would be happy to spend the entire debate talking about their visions for the middle class," Psaki told reporters gathered in Williamsburg, Va., where Obama and his advisers were in the midst of an intense, three-day "debate camp" at a golf resort.
Obama's campaign, seeking to rebound from a dismal first debate, promised a more energetic president would take the stage Tuesday at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Romney's team aimed to build on a commanding opening debate that gave the Republican new life in a White House race that had once appeared to be slipping away from him.
"The debate was huge and we've seen our numbers move all across the country," Romney's wife, Ann, said in an interview on Philadelphia radio station WPHT. She talked about the larger crowds her husband has been drawing in the aftermath of that first face-off. "That's what you call momentum," she said.
Much of the pressure in the coming debate will be on Obama, who aides acknowledge showed up at the first face-off with less practice -- and far less energy -- than they had wanted. Romney, who has made no secret of the huge priority his campaign puts on the debates, practiced Monday at a hotel near his home in Massachusetts.
Romney's advisers suggested the Republican nominee would continue to moderate his message -- in tone, if not substance -- as he did in the Oct. 3 meeting to help broaden his appeal to the narrow slice of undecided voters. In recent days, Romney has promised his tax plan would not benefit the wealthy, emphasized his work with Democrats as Massachusetts governor and downplayed plans to curtail women's abortion rights.
Ann Romney focused on the struggles women face in her radio interview. "The numbers don't lie and what the numbers tell us is that more women have been hurt by this economy than men, more women are unemployed, and more women have fallen into poverty in the last four years," she said. "We do hear their voices."
During debate preparations, aides are working on tailoring that message to a debate format. They're also working on balancing aggressive tactics with the debate's town-hall format, which often requires candidates to show a connection with questioners from the audience.
Also Monday, Romney's campaign announced it raised $170.4 million last month with the Republican Party, a little behind Obama's $181 million September haul with the Democratic Party. Romney and the GOP had been raising more money than Obama and the Democrats by mid-summer, but that changed last month. Both candidates are using their millions to expand campaign offices and flood airwaves with television ads in key in the election's final weeks.
Romney's top-flight donors are meeting at New York's tony Waldorf Astoria hotel through Wednesday, getting a chance to mingle with Ryan and attend strategy briefings and policy discussions with senior Romney aides.
The retreat appears to be a scaled-down version of a posh Park City, Utah, gathering this summer for Romney's most generous contributors. There, Romney officials hosted campaign updates and set ambitious fundraising goals for the general election.