On a floodlit stage, before a huge and almost-vibrant crowd, Mitt Romney admitted what pundits have been saying for weeks: that a small and fiercely contested swing state, in the nation's industrial heartland, is what stands between him and the White House. "Your state is the one that I'm counting on," he told supporters. "This is the one we have to win... Ohio, you're going to elect the next president of the United States."
In what amounts to his closing pitch, with only three days left until America goes to the polls, the Republican nominee attempted to co-opt the very campaign slogan that propelled Barack Obama to office four years ago. Back then, voters plumped for "change". Now Mr Romney says he intends to offer them the prospect of something called "real change". And then he declared: "Words are cheap, but a record is real, and it's earned with effort. Change cannot be measured in speeches; real change is measured in achievements. Four years ago, candidate Obama promised to do so very much, but he has fallen so very short. He promised change, but he could not deliver. I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it."
The crowd lapped it up, waving flags, banging inflatable "thundersticks" and filling a temporary outdoor arena, at a retail park in West Chester, a northern suburb of Cincinnati, with barrage after barrage of raucous cheers. It was a breezy and bitterly cold night, but, as one speaker put it, this sea of hardy Midwesteners knew that they were "freezing for a reason".
That reason was the launch of the Romney-Ryan Real Recovery Road Rally, in which roughly a hundred of the GOP's brightest stars, from John McCain and Rudy Giuliani to Jack Nicklaus and Kid Rock, were dispatched to tour the country's most closely contested states in one final, all-important push. Dressed in matching red fleece jackets, they surrounded Romney on the podium, beneath the Stars and Stripes. It doesn't get much more staged than this.
"We're almost home," Mr Romney told them. "One final push will get us there. We've known many long days and short nights, and we are so very, very close. The door to a brighter future is there. It's open, and it's waiting for us. I need your vote, and I need your help."
Friday night's rally was by far the biggest stump event of Romney's political career. Quite how big is a matter of dispute: his campaign claimed a crowd of 30,000, although security officials later said that only 18,000 had passed through the metal detectors. But Republicans are calling it the largest single campaign trail event by either candidate this season. Enthusiasm alone – and certainly not exaggerating your support by a factor of 60 per cent – won't win the presidency, though. It will be decided by electoral maths. On that front, Romney faces a straightforward challenge: in the next 48 hours, he needs to win the loyalty of 50.1 per cent of the roughly five and a half million voters who inhabit Ohio, the nation's most intensely fought electoral battleground.
Without Ohio, his path to victory is slim, almost non-existent. No Republican has ever won the presidency without also winning control of the Buckeye state's 18 electoral college votes. And, as of last night, poll after poll puts Mr Romney narrowly, but palpably behind, by a margin of more than 2 per cent.
In six of the eight other states still thought to be in play, Barack Obama also holds a narrow but solid lead, meaning that even Ohio isn't guaranteed to push Romney over the top. This landscape has seen his odds of victory widen to almost 7:2 by last night. And most analysts believe that he can now win only if the vast majority of opinion polls are out by a historic margin.
Yet the mood in Romney's camp remains buoyant, at least in public. His aides claim that polls are dramatically over-sampling Democrats. They point to data showing that early voting for their rival is down, slightly, on last time around. And in private they remain adamant that Obama's lead is soft, and that the 3 or 4 per cent of voters still calling themselves "undecided" will break for their man in the coming days.
Adding to their optimism is a sense that this campaign could yet hinge on unknowns. The clean-up from Hurricane Sandy is still far from over, and news stations continue to carry footage of long petrol queues and hungry survivors begging for help which has yet to arrive. On right-wing talk radio stations, commentators are doing their best to portray the disaster as Mr Obama's Katrina.
"This is when the man and the moment are meeting perfectly," was how Mr Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, described the race. The Republican base sings from a similar hymn sheet. "I'm telling you, we're headed for a landslide," was how John Hari, a local plumber at Friday night's Ohio event, put it. "The polls are just wrong. We're going to win Ohio by six or seven points. It won't even be close."
Mr Hari waited in a queue for four hours to get a spot next to the stage where Mr Romney spoke. Next to him was Nancy Cooper, a housewife from Cincinnati, who, like many in the crowd, was carrying a placard saying "Believe", the Romney campaign's slogan. "This is Mitt's moment," she said. "It's his time. I can just feel it. We've been waiting for so long, and it's almost here."
Before Mr Romney spoke, an all-star cast of Republicans lined-up to energise the crowd. The musician Kid Rock paused between songs to inform his audience to ignore the polls. "No matter what you read in the newspapers, or what's being said on TV, I want you all to believe. Just believe!" Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, paced the stage like a circus ringmaster, calling Barack Obama "the worst president for our economy in our lifetime". A heated John McCain said the country's military veterans were "disgusted and angry and sick and tired of a commander-in-chief who doesn't lead".
Their complaints touched on a pertinent fact. At this late stage, Republicans are united in hatred for Barack Obama a lot more than they are united by love of Mitt Romney. Their candidate, who is starting to go hoarse now, remains a surprisingly wooden speaker, and struggles to bring real passion to the podium. His gamble is that, after four hard years, America is after a leader, rather than an orator.
Senate win is slipping away from 'rape man'
Republican chances of capturing control of the Senate on Tuesday are receding, with its candidate in Indiana falling behind after his remarks about rape and pregnancy.
The party has little margin for error if it is to win control of the Senate, and controlling the upper chamber will be vital for either President Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to get their agenda through Congress, where Republicans control the House of Representatives.
Republican failure in Indiana, combined with likely losses in Maine and Massachusetts, would put the party in a deep hole. Democrats control the Senate by a 53-47, so Republicans need to pick up four seats if Obama wins re-election.
If Republicans lose seats in Indiana, Maine and Massachusetts, they would have to win all the competitive open seats now in Democratic hands – Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin – as well as beating incumbents in Montana, Ohio and perhaps Pennsylvania.
Analysts predict that Democrats will narrowly hold the Senate, while Republicans will keep the House. In Indiana, the latest survey showed Democrat Joe Donnelly leading Richard Mourdock by 11 percentage points after the Republican candidate's comment last week that pregnancy resulting from rape is "something God intended".
The same poll showed Romney up 10 percentage points over President Obama. Republicans say Romney will help carry Mourdock to victory.
In Connecticut, Obama appeared in a TV commercial, urging voters to back Chris Murphy in his race against Linda McMahon, the Republican wrestling empire executive, who trails despite spending $42m of her own money. AP