WASHINGTON -- President Obama works here, but he hasn't been here much lately.
With less than seven weeks to go, Obama is spending more than half his time on the road. In the past month, he's been to Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada three days each. He's been to Florida and North Carolina two days each. He stopped in New Hampshire once. And before the week is out, he'll be back in Florida and Virginia, then in Wisconsin.
And, well. . .that's about it. Because those nine states dominate the political landscape this fall, keeping not only Obama but Mitt Romney and each of their running mates and wives crisscrossing the nation as well.
Deciding who goes where, when and why is one of the critical tasks of any presidential campaign. It's part science - based on electoral votes, media markets, voter demographics and fundraising opportunities - and part art form.
"A lot of this is research-based. People are doing polls and focus groups and microtargeting," says Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who was deputy campaign manager in Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "Some of it's just gut."
A look at Romney's recent travels offers a telling twist: considerable time outside the swing states to raise money. On Tuesday, he was in Utah and Texas; the day before, California. In the past month, there have been fundraising stops in New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Arkansas, Louisiana and Massachusetts - states that are not considered up for grabs.
Because the presidential candidates can't be everywhere, the campaigns make ample use of their running mates. Since the Republican convention in late August, Vice President Biden- a native of Scranton, Pa. - has focused almost exclusively on the Midwest with visits to Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Rep. Paul Ryan, a native of Wisconsin, has been sent five times to Virginia and three times each to Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Obama's not-so-secret weapon is his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, a reluctant campaigner in 2008 who is much less so this year. With family roots in the South, she has focused on Virginia, Florida (where she visited Monday) and North Carolina (where she visited Wednesday). Ann Romney is traveling more frequently as well, with recent stops in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire; today, she visits Wisconsin and Iowa.
Both campaigns keep their travel strategies private, lest they tip off the other side. But they share the same three goals: energizing the party's base, raising money and persuading the dwindling number of undecided voters to come their way.
On Monday alone, the Obama for America campaign juggled two presidential pit stops in Ohio, one by the vice president in Iowa and two by the first lady in Florida. Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, had just returned from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, second-tier swing states already leaning Obama's way.
And it didn't hurt that the secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services were in Colorado to promote healthful school lunches and exercise.
Obama's hectic travel schedule is reminiscent of George W. Bush's in 2004, when he spent 12 days in Ohio, 11 in Pennsylvania and 10 in Florida between Sept. 1 and Election Day, according to data compiled by Brendan Doherty of the U.S. Naval Academy.
By contrast, Bill Clinton visited only two states more than a half-dozen times during the same two-month period in 1996 - Michigan and Texas. In 1984, Ronald Reagan topped out at five visits each for Illinois, Michigan and New York. "Recent presidents know very well that the potential to lose is real," Doherty says, citing the demise of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. For that reason, they "have targeted electorally important states in a more focused manner."
•Local media coverage. One of the principal goals of the candidate visits is the generally positive news stories, photos, videos and tweets that emerge over the following 24 hours. Immediately after the Democratic convention in 2000, Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman took a four-day riverboat tour on the Mississippi River to reach small towns. It paid off: Gore won Wisconsin by a mere 5,000 votes and Iowa by 4,000.
So it wasn't surprising Tuesday when Biden stopped in Oskaloosa, Iowa, pop. 11,463, for tuna fish and chili at the Smokey Row coffee house. "The theory is always that the national media is of much less importance," Elmendorf says.
•College campuses. Obama visited 10 campuses in 20 days from Aug. 20 to Sept. 8, when students were returning - more than Romney, Biden and Ryan combined.
"In the swing states, Obama goes to the college towns, and Biden goes to the blue-collar areas," says Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas and author of a book on presidential campaign strategy. On Tuesday, however, Biden spoke at Grinnell College in Iowa.
•Early voting. It was no accident that both Biden and Ryan were in Iowa on Monday, just 140 miles apart. Among swing states, Iowa will be first to begin early, in-person voting a week from Thursday; Biden urged his audience Tuesday to "take advantage of it." Earlier this month, Obama, Biden, Michelle Obama and Romney all visited Iowa on the same day.
"This is your most important asset, so to speak," says Sara Taylor Fagen, who was political director for President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. "You've got to make sure that you're making the right decision. And with each passing day, it's a decision that gets much more important."