MINNEAPOLIS -- Mitt Romney is suddenly plunging into traditionally Democratic-leaning Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and his GOP allies are trying to put Michigan into play. It's forcing President Barack Obama to defend his own turf -- he's pouring money into television ads in the states and dispatching top backers -- in the campaign's final week.
The question is: Why this Republican move?
GOP efforts in the trio of Rust Belt states could indicate that Romney is desperately searching for a last-minute path to the needed 270 Electoral College votes -- without all-important Ohio. Or just the opposite, that he's so confident in the most competitive battlegrounds that he's pressing for insurance against Obama in what's expected to be a close race.
Or perhaps the Republican simply has money to burn. Use it now or never.
Former President Bill Clinton was dispatched in response on Tuesday. "Barack Obama's policies work better," he declared on the University of Minnesota campus, one of his two stops in a state that offers 10 electoral votes and hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.
This late-game expansion of a campaign playing field that, until now, had focused on just nine states was taking place exactly a week from Election Day. At the same time, Obama spent a second day in Washington to focus on his presidential duties and Romney edged back into active campaigning in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.
"This is a tough time for millions of people ... but America is tougher," the president said during a brief visit to the American Red Cross, where he sought to reassure victims, encourage aid workers -- and warn of more storm damage to come with rising floodwater.
In Ohio, Romney, too, spoke of concern for storm victims, telling supporters who were collecting supplies that "a lot of people hurting this morning."
Beyond the candidates' pause from feverish campaigning, the impact of the storm on the election wasn't all that clear.
National polls show an even race for the popular vote, though Obama appears to have both an edge in key battleground states in the electoral vote hunt and more state-by-state pathways to reach the 270-vote threshold.
Of the nine states where the two men have spent more than $1 billion in advertising since June, Romney is in the strongest position in North Carolina. But public and internal campaign polls show he's locked in stubbornly tight battles in Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada and Virginia and is fighting to overtake Obama's advantage in crucial Ohio as well as Iowa and Wisconsin.
That said, Romney still could win. Anything can happen in the race's closing days -- including Democratic-leaning states like Minnesota, Pennsylvania or Michigan going Republican.
Clinton's Minnesota visit came just days after Romney and his allies started airing TV ads in the state. GOP-leaning groups including Americans for Job Security and American Future Fund were spending $615,000 this week. Romney spent a much lighter $29,000 last week, and it was unclear how much his campaign was spending this week. All together, the efforts led Obama to follow suit to prevent the state from slipping out of his grasp. His campaign was spending $210,000 on ads in Minnesota this week.
Polls show Romney having gained ground in Minnesota though still trailing Obama. And Obama has a much larger campaign footprint of paid staff and volunteers, including more than 30 full-time workers and 12 offices. Romney never has established much of campaign organization in Minnesota.
In Pennsylvania, Romney's campaign started pouring money into TV ads Monday for the first time, though Republican-leaning groups have been on the air in recent days trying to narrow the Obama advantage indicated by surveys. Republican groups - American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and Americans for Job Security - are spending at least $3.9 million this week. That does not include spending by Romney's campaign. Obama aides said the president's campaign is spending $625,000.
Romney has sent most of his Pennsylvania team to other states in recent weeks, and he has had no plan to visit, raising questions about whether he is actually playing to win the state that offers 20 electoral votes and last went Republican in the 1988 presidential election.
GOP allies also were running TV ads in Democratic-tilting Michigan in hopes of softening the ground for Romney in the final days, but there was no indication yet that the Republican himself would make a strong 11th-hour play for the state where he was born and raised. Obama's team said late Tuesday that it was answering Restore Our Future's $2 million in ads in Michigan, which has 16 electoral votes.
Obama's team cast Romney's moves into the three states, which have trended Democrat for more than 20 years, as a desperate act by a candidate who hasn't locked up the states he needs for a White House win.
"They understand they're not going to be able to win Ohio and now they're getting desperate and want to be able to put other states in play," Messina said. "We're going to win Pennsylvania, but we aren't taking anything for granted."
Romney political director Rich Beeson argued that Romney was playing to win, saying in a campaign memo: "With one week to go, and 96% of the vote on the table on Election Day in Pennsylvania, this expansion of the electoral map demonstrates that Governor Romney's momentum has jumped containment from the usual target states."
Other Republicans debated Romney's tactics.
Some GOP strategists in Washington and key states suggested the moves into Minnesota and Pennsylvania provide a cushion for the GOP candidate in case he loses Ohio or another key state.
"I don't think he has to break down a wall," said Republican strategist Greg Strimple, who was the pollster for 2008 GOP nominee John McCain's presidential campaign. "He's in position to run the table, but he needs to have an insurance card in there in case he doesn't."
Still others said it was simply a matter of Romney's campaign and backers having so much money that they can afford to make low-probability efforts in the off-chance that one might bear fruit. Many pointed out that it is almost impossible at this late date for the campaigns and their allied groups to buy more ads in saturated states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida.
"It's not really desperation" that drives such decisions, said veteran GOP strategist Mike McKenna of Richmond, Va. "You think, `Maybe I can make the other guy spend some money there,"' even if the state is probably out of reach.
Other Republicans joined Democrats in saying that Romney options are shrinking and he had no choice but to find different paths to victory, and had the money to do it.
"If they didn't have so much money, they wouldn't be able to do something with so little chance of success," said Tad Devine, top electoral strategist for Democratic nominee Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
He called the Minnesota and Pennsylvania efforts by Romney more a "head-fake than a strategic move" because of what he called enormous Democratic voting trends and electoral advantages. Those include a heavy union presence in both states and a large minority population in Pennsylvania.
Obama carried Pennsylvania and Minnesota each by 10 percentage points in 2008.