WASHINGTON – Four years ago, the presidential contenders were packing airplane hangars, city squares and college arenas in a sprint to Election Day. This year, the rallies are fewer, the gatherings often smaller.
Barely six weeks before the election, where are President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney spending their time? Fundraisers. The high costs of seeking the presidency – and changing ideas of how to win – are shifting campaign schedules at the expense of time-honored candidate-to-voter interaction.
Out: Hopscotching to a couple of states a day, spending hours shaking hands with voters, posing for pictures and trying to win support the old-fashioned way.
In: A quick public event, then a beeline to a hotel ballroom to speak to donors who shell out $50,000 a ticket – money to pay for TV ads, polling, office space, mailing.
This week, for example, why was Romney in the reliably Republican states of Utah, Texas and Georgia? To collect checks before dashing off to campaign events in Florida, which is still highly competitive, and Las Vegas. Obama picked up some $4 million at a Manhattan fundraiser hosted by entertainer Beyoncé and hubby Jay-Z before a more-traditional, shirtsleeves-in-a-ballpark rally in Woodbridge, Va., on Friday.
Not everyone loves the new reality.
"Romney doesn't seem to be out there campaigning enough," wrote Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. "He seems – in this he is exactly like the president – to always be disappearing into fundraisers and not having enough big public events."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who was a constant at Sen. John McCain's side during his 2008 presidential bid, put it more directly: Romney should go to the states that are in play and essentially live there.
"In my view, what he should do in the last 45 days .... is pretty simple. If we win Virginia, and one of Ohio or Florida, we're going to win this thing. If I were Mitt Romney, no person in Virginia could go very long without meeting me," Graham said. "This is not rocket science."
Romney is at least acknowledging the criticism. Advisers now say the former Massachusetts governor will increase the tempo of his campaign itinerary so it more closely resembles the intense schedules that have marked previous presidential contests. Next week's schedule includes as many as three stops a day in Colorado and Ohio.
But these advisers also note the hefty price tags on this year's campaign. A week of advertising in Florida alone costs $5 million.
This is the first presidential contest in which both major-party candidates have opted not to accept federal money to pay for their general-election campaigns. In the past, taking the federal dollars allowed contenders to spend the final weeks before the election shaking hands instead of cashing checks. It's not new for Obama: He reversed his pledge to accept public financing in 2008 and instead relied on his own fundraising firepower for the general election.
It's not just about fundraising. With each passing week, it seems the number of states both Obama and Romney are contesting shrinks. At this point four years ago, Obama was advertising in 16 states. These days, he's advertising in nine.
Fewer states in play can mean less reason to travel. But when candidates do travel, they're spending their time differently.
In 2008, for example, GOP candidate McCain didn't miss a chance to glad-hand with a crowd, swinging by the Minnesota State Fair on short notice while in the state for other events.
This year, Romney opted against doing the same, going straight from the airport to a high-dollar fundraiser in a swanky neighborhood and back to the airport. It was the fair's opening day in August, but the only shots of Romney that TV crews got was of a motorcade – a missed chance to lead the local news.
With the campaign entering its most intense period, Romney's main activities include rehearsing for the three upcoming presidential debates, in addition to raising money. Obama's been spending many days at or near the White House.
Compare Sept. 15, 2008, with Sept. 15 of this year.
Four years ago, it was a Monday when Obama held a town hall-style meeting in Grand Junction, Colo., a 14,000-person rally in conservative Pueblo, Colo., and a fundraiser in Los Angeles. McCain had a morning rally for 3,000 in Jacksonville, Fla., and a town hall event in Orlando. Joe Biden, running for vice president, was at Michigan rallies in Saint Clair Shores and Flat Rock. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, was in Golden, Colo.
This year, on a Saturday, Obama was not seen in public and didn't leave the White House. Romney did not have public events, but watched a grandson's soccer game and took wife Ann to an Italian dinner. Biden was at home in Delaware. Only Romney running mate Paul Ryan campaigned; he was in Oldsmar, Fla.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Atlanta, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Kasie Hunt, Donna Cassata, Julie Pace and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.