The Obama campaign believes that states that offer early voting periods — both in person and by mail — for several weeks before the election could play a decisive role in the election's outcome.

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Eager to signal its support for President Obama, the crowd of 10,000 at a campaign rally here hooted in derision at his first mention of his Republican rivals. But Obama cut the crowd off.

“Don’t boo,” he said. “Vote.”

This wasn’t a call to arms for Election Day on Nov. 6, but rather the starting gun in a race that begins this month when Iowa begins accepting in-person, non-absentee ballots.

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The Hawkeye State, which opens ballot boxes first on Sept. 27, isn’t alone. Most states will offer limited early voting — both in person and by mail — for several weeks before the election and the amount of ballots cast will be significant enough that the Obama campaign believes they could play a decisive role in the election’s outcome.

In all, 40 million votes were cast before Election Day in 2008, nearly 30 percent of the total. In Colorado, another swing state where Obama appeared Sunday in Boulder, 77 percent of votes were made early, according to campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

In a 2012 campaign that polls and pundits suggest could go down to the wire, the president’s re-election team, which has an edge in field offices and campaign manpower, sees a window of opportunity to rack up an early advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

“A vote on Election Day is not better than a vote before. A vote is a vote,” Psaki said. “And so we are spending a lot of time educating people, making sure they know when they can vote, where they can vote and enabling them to have the opportunity to do so if they’re eligible.”

In recent campaign speeches, Obama has encouraged supporters to visit a pair of websites — and — that are run by the Democratic National Committee and aimed at helping voters overcome new voter-identification laws.

“We need your help. We need you to register to vote,” the president told 2,100 at a Las Vegas high school two weeks ago. “Now, that’s gotta — g-o-t-t-a,” Obama said with a chuckle about the websites. “I know that’s not how you’re supposed to spell it, but that’s how it is: Gotta.”

Obama played the line for laughs, but he and his allies are dead serious about their efforts to protect and encourage early voting. This summer, the Obama campaign joined a lawsuit from Democrats in Ohio aimed at overturning a Republican-led effort to ban in-person voting on the weekend before the presidential election.

On Friday, a federal judge ruled in their favor, dismissing the GOP argument that keeping the polls open on the final weekend would distract local election boards from preparing the polling centers for the crush of voters on Nov. 6. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican, vowed he would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The ruling could prove crucial for the Obama campaign. In the lawsuit, Democrats said 93,000 people in Ohio voted on the weekend before the 2008 election, and several studies have shown that the elderly, the poor and minorities are more likely to take advantage of voting opportunities offered outside normal business hours.

Democrats “really seemed to use early voting to their advantage in 2008,” said Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota. “The combination of expanded availability of early voting and the nature of then-Senator Obama’s candidacy made it like an event.”

The Romney campaign scoffs at the notion that their rivals will build a sizable lead before Election Day. Aides noted that Republicans have traditionally done well in absentee balloting, which include a large military population, and they vowed that Romney will not be outmaneuvered in early get-out-the-vote efforts as Sen. John McCain was in 2008.

The Obama campaign is “whistling past the graveyard if they think we do not know how to do turnout,” said Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson. In 2004, Republicans “had the largest volunteer ground game ever assembled. … We know a little about turnout.”

Beeson added that the Obama campaign is ” playing a shell game of ‘Look at how many staff and offices we have, so we’ll do great in early voting.’ But their support among 18- to 25-year-olds is collapsing before their eyes.”

There has been scant evidence that Romney has made large gains among that group. In 2008, Obama won the support of under-25 voters, 66 percent to 32 percent. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Poll showed his ratio at 60-33, while a Pew poll last month found it at 58-34.

Obama aides boast they are ahead of the voter-registration pace they set four years ago. They said that from June through mid-August, the president’s campaign had secured 147 percent more voter-registration forms, made 234 percent more home visits and phone calls, and had 171 percent more conversations with voters than it had during the same period in 2008.

The president’s top surrogates have taken up the cause with him. In July, first lady Michelle Obama launched a registration drive called “It Takes One,” emphasizing that every vote, phone call, donation and conversation matters.

The president “needs you to keep making those calls, doing that hard work, knocking on those doors,” she said at a campaign appearance in Miami. “He needs you to keep registering those voters. You know, the ones that aren’t registered and you gotta get ’em and shake ’em.”

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