TAMPA, Fla. - A scratchy-voiced President Barack Obama powered through a sleepless drive to get his supporters to vote Thursday and planned to set an example by becoming the first president to cast his own ballot ahead of time.
With a new Associated Press-GfK poll showing that Republican Mitt Romney has erased Obama's 16-point advantage among women, the president tried to keep a GOP abortion controversy alive. The risers behind him stacked with female supporters, Obama made a veiled reference to Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comment that pregnancies resulting from rape are "something God intended."
"As we saw again this week, I don't think any politician in Washington, most of whom are male, should be making health care decisions for women," Obama said. "Women can make those decisions themselves."
It was the president's first mention of Mourdock's comment at a rally, but Obama said Wednesday night on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" that "rape is rape." His campaign also has been intensifying its criticism of Romney for refusing to pull his support for Mourdock, even though the Republican presidential nominee said he disagrees with Mourdock's comment.
Beyond the statement from an aide, Romney and his aides have tried to avoid the subject. While picking up breakfast at a downtown Cincinnati diner Thursday morning, Romney refused to answer repeated questions about Mourdock's comment and whether he would call for Mourdock to take down a TV ad Romney filmed for him earlier this week.
Ignoring questions from reporters standing a few feet away, Romney instead posed for pictures with kitchen staff and greeted surprised diners during the brief stop at the First Watch cafe.
Romney's campaign reached out to women by sending Ann Romney on daytime's "Rachael Ray" show, where she prepared her meatloaf cakes recipe and took cameras along on a trip to Costco to shop in bulk for family gatherings. Mrs. Romney said that, with 30 mouths to feed, her family always eats buffet-style and that "Mitt is often at the front of the line."
Romney was kicking off a daylong swing through three Ohio towns, sharpening his focus on a state critical to his hopes of winning the White House. The Republican's advisers say their internal data has him tied to win the state's 18 Electoral College votes, but public polling has shown Obama with a slim lead.
Romney is working to cast Obama's campaign as focused on small issues while the Republican ticket is focused on fixing the nation's serious fiscal problems.
"His campaign seems to be smaller and smaller by the day," Romney told more than 2,000 people in an airplane hangar off the tarmac in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday as his campaign plane loomed behind him. "Attacking me is not an agenda for the future."
The AP-GfK poll released Thursday shows the presidential race still a virtual dead heat nationally, with Romney favored by 47 percent of likely voters and Obama by 45 percent. That result is within the poll's 4.2-point margin of error.
Although national polls show the race is close, Romney is struggling to overtake Obama in the state-by-state march to racking up the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. Romney has far fewer paths to reaching that threshold than Obama, who starts with more states - and more Electoral College votes - in his win column. The race is centered on just nine states, where polls show competitive races: Ohio, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin.
The president's morning rally kicked off the second day of his 40-hour battleground state blitz. After spending the night on Air Force One en route to Florida, he was heading to Virginia and Ohio before heading back to the White House.
Shortly after 7 a.m. and less than five hours after his day ended in Las Vegas, Obama was at a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop near downtown Tampa, and minutes later delivered the still warm doughnuts to a nearby firehouse. He said he wanted to come by early - noting he is not often out this early - to thank them for all they do.
Obama then spoke to about 8,500 people at a morning rally in Tampa, a swing area of battleground state Florida.
With a full day of campaigning still ahead of him, Obama's voice was already hoarse. But he told the enthusiastic crowd he was "just going to keep on keeping on until every single person out there who needs to vote is going to go vote."
He noted to cheers that he was going to Chicago later Thursday to participate in early voting and that first lady Michelle Obama already mailed in her ballot.
Obama's campaign also announced joint rallies Monday with Bill Clinton in Orlando, Fla., Youngstown, Ohio, and Prince William County, Va. The president also picked up an endorsement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican who supported Obama in 2008. Powell praised Obama's handling of the economic recovery, telling "CBS This Morning," ''I think we've begun to come out of the dive and we're gaining altitude."
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