(CBS News) After a solid six months of general election campaigning, the presidential race has entered the home stretch. Election Day is just five weeks away, some states have already begun early voting, and the first of three presidential debates is Wednesday. With polls showing President Obama with a slight lead, Mitt Romney is starting to run out of time to make up ground.
"Time is something you can never get back. Five weeks is going to seem a lifetime and in other ways it's going to go by way too fast," Romney political director Rich Beeson told CBSNews.com.
It's instructive to look at where things stood around this time in previous campaign cycles. Five weeks from Election Day in 2008, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., was reeling from his botched messaging on the financial crisis. Things were not going well: McCain was also forced at the time to pull his resources from the battleground state of Michigan due to limited resources and low approval ratings. Five weeks before the 2004 election, Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., was trying to recover from Swift Boat attacks and make inroads on foreign policy.
Going back to World War II, there are no clear examples of the dynamics of a race changing significantly with only weeks to go, according to Emory political science professor Alan Abramowitz.
There was "a bit of a surprise" in the margin that challenger Ronald Reagan beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter by in 1980, Abramowitz notes, when Reagan won by nearly ten points. There was just one debate in that race, which took place one week before Election Day. "It may have been that there were a lot of late deciders, which is unlikely to be the case now," he said.
In a Washington Post-ABC News Poll released Monday, Mr. Obama had a two point advantage over Romney, 49 percent to 47 percent. Another poll released Monday by Politico and George Washington University showed the same margin. An average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics shows the president with a 3.7 percent lead over Romney.
But the national polls mean little in this election, which will ultimately be decided in the battleground states of Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Mr. Obama leads by a larger margin in many battleground state polls, including one released the last week by Quinnipiac, CBS News and the New York Times that showed the president leading Romney by nine points in Florida, 10 points in Ohio and 12 points in Pennsylvania.
Pollster Larry Sabato with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics says that the race could tighten. "[T]he fundamentals of this election call for a close election," he said on "Face the Nation" Sunday. "Yes, President Obama is ahead, and probably has the best chance to win, but this is going to be a tighter race than the polls show right now."
Three days after conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote a column titled "End of the Referendum," which made the argument that Romney should frame the election as a choice instead of a referendum on the president's performance, the Romney campaign began to (again) recalibrate its message.
"What we hope people get out of this debate is that choice," GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan said on Fox News Sunday. Ryan denied a shift in message but called it, "a phase of the campaign we've now entered into."
The message of a choice election was echoed on a conference call for reporters Monday morning. "We will continue to highlight as an area where there is a clear choice between Governor Romney's vision for the country and President Obama's lack of leadership," Romney adviser Kevin Madden said.
Romney has been criticized for being too vague about his own plans. Critics, including on the right, have pushed him to offer details about his own plans instead of just criticizing the president.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been one of his most vocal critics in this area, saying in June that it will be difficult to win if the election is "just about a referendum on Barack Obama."
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has worked since the beginning of the summer to make the election a choice between the two candidates. The president highlighted that message at the Democratic convention where he called the election "the clearest choice of any time in a generation."
While the president has also received some criticism for lack of details, with critics saying he has talked little of his second-term plans, his campaign has sought to define Romney as an insensitive corporate executive willing to ship jobs overseas to preserve the bottom line.
"It was brilliant," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist from Massachusetts who worked for John Kerry's campaign. "People forget November elections are always won in June, July and August. He lost some points in favorability but it was a smart investment if you are making a point that sticks with voters."
Marsh said Romney's comments about the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes as being victims and dependents was a big deal because it played into a narrative already associated with Romney. She compared Romney's campaign to Kerry's 2004 campaign, when President George W. Bush effectively defined Kerry as a flip-flopper before Kerry introduced himself to voters.
"The fact that they were able to define him... was so damaging in that campaign," she said.
Republicans insist that Romney still has time to define himself.
"In the months of October and first week of November, Romney has time through the debates and other ways to make the sale," former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said Monday. "The burden is on him. It's his election to win, has been the whole time. He has to do it."
The Obama campaign admits that the election will be close. It is working to "persuade those voters who are still making up their minds," Obama campaign spokesperson Ben LaBolt said in a telephone interview. He added, however, that there are no plans to change course.
"This isn't a campaign you're going to see a strategic shift from," LaBolt said.
Both candidates are feverishly preparing for Wednesday's first debate, which is to focus on domestic issues. And both campaigns have been lowering expectations heading into the debate in hopes that even a decent performance will be celebrated for exceeding them.
At a weekend rally, the president called Romney "a good debater" and added that he's "just O.K."
The Romney campaign says the debate is about direct communication to voters.
"You will see the debate where Romney will have a chance through an unfiltered lens to lay out his vision," Beeson said. He added that Romney will ask convey the message that the last four years has not been better.
"Given that [this is] a close race, we can expect a large audience," Emory's Abramowitz said before cautioning against thinking the debates will be a major turning point in the election. This despite comments by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie predicted the debates will turn the election "upside-down."
"The effects they are typically very small," Abramowitz said, adding that "it's much more difficult to come from behind."
Although Election Day is five weeks away, for some voters, it has already come and gone. Eight states have begun early voting or accepting absentee ballots, including the battleground states of Iowa and Ohio, which begins early voting today. As many as 40 percent of voters could cast their ballot before Election Day, according to a CBS News analysis.
While both campaigns are working to convince undecided voters through campaign ads, rallies and debates, they are simultaneously working to get their supporters to the polls.
The Romney campaign boasts of a robust get out the vote effort, having knocked on 10 million dollars, which campaign adviser Beeson calls "the purist form of voter contact."
The Obama campaign also understands the importance of get-out-the-vote, and Mr. Obama has reminded supporters they can vote early. The campaign as also launched a "gotta vote" bus tour in early voting battleground states, including Iowa.
Candidates "have to run right through the polls close on the West Coast. In these times in this election you can't take anything for granted," Marsh said.