GWEN IFILL: The crucial midterm election campaign of 2010 headed into its closing days today. President Obama hit the road again, with control of Congress and key statehouses still up for grabs.
The president kicked off the last full week of the midterm campaign in the Democratic stronghold of Rhode Island.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is great to be here in Rhode Island.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama has been on the campaign trail nearly nonstop, barnstorming from battleground to battleground in a five-state swing last week that wrapped up Saturday in Minnesota.
BARACK OBAMA: I need you fired up, because, in just 10 days, you have the chance, not just to set the direction of this state, but also help determine the direction of this country.
GWEN IFILL: Republicans, who polls show are leading or tied in a number of critical races, have brought their own star power to bear. In Florida, where the governor's race is a tossup, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin were the draw at a weekend rally Saturday in Orlando.
SARAH PALIN (R), former governor, Alaska: That momentum is with us, but now is not the time to let up. Now is the time where we dig deep.
GWEN IFILL: The battles for the House and the Senate have become a critical test for the national parties. And both sides claim the advantage. Steele and his Democratic counterpart, Tim Kaine, offered starkly different assessments this weekend.
MICHAEL STEELE, chairman, Republican National Committee: The voters are tired of the fact that the federal government has not listened to them over the past two years, has moved in its own direction, at its own rhythm. And they want to pull back on that. And I think you're going to see a wave, an unprecedented wave, on Election Day that's going to surprise a lot of people.
TIM KAINE, chairman, Democratic National Committee: The polling is moving. We really haven't seen, since Labor Day, polls moving against us. Almost all the polls have been moving for us. Now, we still have some work to do. But what Democrats tend to specialize in is the ground game, the turnout. The more people turn out, the better we do. And we're seeing strong trends at the presidential rallies, in early voting.
GWEN IFILL: The endgame hinges on turnout, especially in 31 states where early voting is already under way.
And NewsHour political editor David Chalian joins me now for the latest. David, we just heard Tim Kaine talk about early voting. We hear all this talk about early voting in all of those states. Significant?
DAVID CHALIAN: It is significant because it's some metric to look at, other than just polls, right now. So, both parties look very closely at, are their voters that they have identified as key to their success actually getting this vote in early, so that the parties can what they call bank those votes, and then worry about the rest on Election Day?
But, Gwen, it is a mixed picture, what we are seeing. We are certainly not seeing the enthusiasm gap that we have talked so much about. We don't see some massive outpouring on the Republican side of the early vote. It kind of depends on what state you are in. In Florida, in Colorado, states with key races, we do see the Republicans edging out.
But then a state like Nevada that has that marquee Reid-Angle race, it is almost dead-even between the parties. So that is not quite reflecting that enthusiasm gap that we are seeing nationally, with the Republicans having that edge.
GWEN IFILL: If there is a wave, as the Republicans say there is going to be, which are the part -- who are the people who each party is watching most closely in this?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, they have to get their partisans, their most committed supporters, to the polls first.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
DAVID CHALIAN: And no doubt we see that is what Barack Obama has been doing nonstop. He's going to Democratic strongholds and trying to rally that base.
But this is a story about independents. We cannot forget, for all the talk that you and I have had about Tea Party enthusiasm and all of this energy on the right and how drummed-up that conservative wing of the party is, elections in America are still about independent voters.
And take a look at this poll out today from G.W./Battleground/Politico -- 44 percent are leaning -- 44 percent are leaning Republican -- 30 percent are leaning Democratic. That is a 14-point edge among independents for Republicans.
Compare that to 2006, where you see a huge swathe of independents, 57 percent to 39 percent, went for the Democrat, and, in 2008, Barack Obama bested John McCain 52 percent to 44 percent among independents.
It's not just about the base. You have to win the middle. And we see independents swinging big-time right now for Republicans.
GWEN IFILL: So, as we watch Vice President Biden and President Obama go around the country -- I -- I think I read the other day Vice President Biden has now made 100 of these trips.
DAVID CHALIAN: Right.
GWEN IFILL: Is this who they are going after?
DAVID CHALIAN: The independents?
No, I think they are actually trying to drum up as much Democratic support. They're not trying to find the universe of persuadable voters anymore. Now the Democrats are just relying on bring those people that showed up in 2008 to the polls, because they know they have lost the argument with independents.
They see the same poll numbers that we just saw. Take a look at the map in the country of where Vice President Biden and President Obama are going to spend their final campaign push. You see Obama in the lighter blue states there, Illinois and Iowa, New York, today Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut. These are blue states, Gwen. They're not talking a lot of persuadable voters.
GWEN IFILL: They're not even trying for the purple states anymore.
DAVID CHALIAN: Not so much. That is a map about trying to get your most hard-core supporters out.
GWEN IFILL: So, what is it you are watching most closely? If you have to pick a handful of those states coast-to-coast, what are you watching and therefore we should be watching?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, on the House side, I'm watching both the 48 districts that John McCain won where a Democrat currently serves, because, in this environment, it will be very hard for those Democrats to hang on to what might be a Republican-tilting district, as well as those freshman and sophomore Democrats that won on the wave in '06 and '08, if they can hang on without a wave in their party's direction. So, on the House side, that's what I am watching.
On the Senate side, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nevada, Colorado, those are four states that I'm watching very, very closely.
GWEN IFILL: California, you say?
DAVID CHALIAN: California is quite interesting because it's one of these races where if you talk to Democrats and Republicans, they totally don't agree at what they are looking at.
DAVID CHALIAN: There is absolutely no agreement. Democrats think Barbara Boxer is doing OK there. And the Republicans think that Carly Fiorina is in a real race and may be their best chance in 20 years to win a Senate seat.
GWEN IFILL: Good for us Judy Woodruff is out there reporting right now.
DAVID CHALIAN: Exactly.
GWEN IFILL: She will tell us all about it later this week. Thank you, David.
DAVID CHALIAN: Sure. Thank you.