WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama hits Milwaukee next Saturday for a grass-roots rally -- in a state where he was not supposed to be spending any campaign time -- or money.
Things have changed.
Wisconsin is now a battleground.
Obama's 14-point Wisconsin win in 2008 doesn't guarantee a 2012 victory.
Obama needs to squeeze every vote out of the Democratic city and county of Milwaukee -- in order to wipe out gains from new Mitt Romney-friendly Badger turf.
Romney's selection last month of a son of Janesville to be his vice presidential pick -- U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan -- pushed Wisconsin to the short list of states determining who wins the White House in November.
While national campaign attention the past few days has been on turmoil in the Middle East, with events injecting foreign policy into a contest mainly focused on jobs and the economy, operatives from both teams really just want to know what, if any, is the impact on the small group of undecided voters who populate battleground states.
The Romney and Obama campaigns have this in common: They don't pay much attention to national polls, except to discern certain trends or themes or show them to wavering mega-donors. The polls that matter are the battleground state surveys.
The campaigns are sending Obama, Romney, Ryan, Vice President Joe Biden and their spouses only to the battlegrounds, except for fund-raising detours -- such as first lady Michelle Obama's Sept. 27 fund-raiser in Chicago.
The campaigns are spending money, and the other most valuable asset they have, the candidates' time, in the battlegrounds. Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes is the added starter, joining Ohio, with 18; Colorado, 9; Florida, 29; Nevada, 6; New Hampshire, 4; Virginia, 13; Pennsylvania, 20, and North Carolina, 15, as the main battlegrounds. Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, is a second-tier battleground.
Obama won each of these states in 2008 when he defeated GOP nominee Sen. John McCain with 365 electoral votes to McCain's 173. Obama has more paths than Romney to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Obama can "afford" to lose a few of the battlegrounds he won in 2008.
Last week marked Wisconsin's move into full battleground status with candidate visits and television buys. NBC reported that the Obama campaign purchased $668,000 in TV time, compared with $370,000 bought by the Romney team.
That amount is dwarfed by SuperPACs and other groups buying Wisconsin television time. Overall, Romney forces have -- so far -- outspent Obama backers by about double.
Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA, the group Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fund-raising for, bought more than $3 million in time for ads that have not yet run. Romney groups have vastly outspent Obama's allies in Wisconsin so far, Gilbert reports, with American for Prosperity at $3.3 million; Restore our Future at $2.8 million; Concerned Women for America at $1.1 million, and $370,000 from Republican National Committee, whose chairman, Reince Priebus, is from Wisconsin.
To complement the ad wars, Ryan stumped in Green Bay and Oak Creek while Vice President Joe Biden hit Eau Claire, all in advance of Obama's Sept. 17 visit to headline a fund-raiser. It will be his first trip to Wisconsin since February.
Now not all battlegrounds are equal. The most intense skirmishes are over Virginia, Ohio and Florida -- states President George W. Bush won in 2004 over Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) -- on the road toward 270 electoral votes. Most analysts say Romney needs two of these states to win -- while Obama needs only one to be re-elected.
A few days ago, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse, in a memo about post-convention polls, said any edge Obama might have was merely a "sugar high."
A new poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist puts Obama in the lead in Florida, Virginia and Ohio. The poll was taken Sept. 9-11 of 1,000 likely voters in each state, with about 30 percent reached on a cellphone. The margin of error was 3.1 percentage points, which means Obama's lead might be very fragile.
† In Florida, Obama is at 49 percent to Romney's 44 percent.
† In Ohio, Obama is at 50 percent to Romney's 43 percent.
† In Virginia, Obama is at 49 percent to Romney's 44 percent.
A striking finding of the poll is how many voters have already made a choice. Just 5 percent were undecided in Florida and Ohio, 6 percent in Virginia. All the ads and campaigning -- and the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in this race for the White House -- are for them.