WASHINGTON -- Polls show a razor's edge separating the presidential candidates as Republicans assemble a week from Monday to formally anoint Mitt Romney as standard-bearer and sign on to his promises to cut the U.S. deficit, shrink government and cut taxes.
Romney brings with him Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice presidential choice, a politician best known as author of a Republican plan to slash spending for social safety net programs and to fundamentally change the country's half-century-old Medicare program _ government health insurance for Americans over age 65.
President Barack Obama, polls show, maintains a slight lead over Romney even though the incumbent receives significantly lower marks for handling of the struggling economy, the top issue among U.S. voters.
That may be a result of the president's campaign having largely avoided the larger economic issues for nearly a month now.
Obama managed to keep much of the campaign focused on Romney's gaffe-filled trip overseas, the vastly wealthy Republican's refusal to release more than just two years of his federal returns, and on Ryan.
The Republican vice presidential pick is a darling of the hard-right tea party wing of the Republican party, and his vision for the future of Medicare has stirred a tumultuous debate over the beloved program.
Much as Republican Sen. John McCain did four years ago in choosing Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate, Romney is believed to have turned to Ryan as a way of solidifying his support among the conservative Republican base.
The increasingly deep conservatism that marks the party has made it difficult for Romney, who had a moderate record as governor of Massachusetts, to generate much excitement among Republicans.
In selecting Ryan, Romney put himself firmly in the ultra-conservative camp but opened the debate over Medicare, long seen as one of the deadliest issues for any politician.
The Obama camp, that had made inroads against Romney by casting him as a cold-hearted, bottom-line businessman, now is slamming the Republicans for planning to "end Medicare as we know it."
The issue is complex and both parties acknowledge that the Medicare program faces bankruptcy some years from now without reforms. Obama has sought to make the program more efficient by cutting waste and reducing what hospitals and insurance companies charge.
Ryan _ and Romney agrees _ wants to fundamentally change the program in years to come by shifting it from a solely government-run operation to one where the elderly would be given a voucher to help them buy insurance coverage in the private marketplace. Non-partisan assessments of that plan indicate it would cost those now covered by Medicare as much as $6,000 more each year.
While the Republicans now say that would be a choice for Americans now under age 55, their vision for the program remains vague.
In the midst of the unexpected debates on issues beyond the slow economic recovery and stubbornly high unemployment, the campaign has become notably nasty. Both campaigns, with the help of groups supporting them and able to raise and spend unlimited dollars, are battling with a ferocity normally not seen until after the conventions, if then.
Both sides will continue trying to inflict bruising punishment on each other in the week left before the Republicans officially nominate Romney and Ryan. Then the Democrats assemble in North Carolina for their party jamboree to celebrate Obama's run for a second term with Vice President Joe Biden.
Brutal as the campaign already is, it promises to grow even nastier once the conventions are done and Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden begin the final two months of battle before the Nov. 6 vote.