Dead Heat with Two Weeks to Go
If you had told me a month ago that President Barack Obama would be seen as the winner in two of his three debates with Mitt Romney, and that Vice President Joe Biden would be given the edge in his showdown with Paul Ryan, I might have concluded that this election would be a slam-dunk for Team Obama. Well, it turns out the easy response to that scenario is, “WRONG!”
The debates are now behind us and both campaigns are plunging full force into the final two weeks of a presidential campaign that has been at least two years in the making. Mitt Romney’s smashing win in the first presidential debate in Denver on October 3rd changed the direction of this race from trending toward President Obama to what we have now, a dead heat.
Starting after the Republican primaries earlier this year, the Obama campaign did an effective job of depicting Mitt Romney as an out of touch former corporate CEO who seemed incapable of connecting with real people. This was mainly done through sometimes snarky TV ads that highlighted Mr. Romney’s wealthy background, his wife’s interest in dressage and the candidate’s overseas investments.
Mr. Romney, though, has been able to turn this around, thanks in large part to his stellar performance in that first debate. Mr. Romney came off as a confident business-savvy leader who deftly criticized the president’s record without looking too mean, while at the same time making a coherent case for a fresh approach on generating jobs and economic growth.
In the 90 minutes of that first debate, Mr. Romney was able to undo, to an extent, the Obama ad campaign of the past summer that was meant to disqualify him as a potential president. In the final two debates, why did I always get the feeling that Mr. Obama was still kicking himself for not showing up for the first one in Denver?
The Obama strategy always rested on trying to disqualify Mr. Romney early so that enough voters would not see him as a viable alternative to the president. Mr. Romney has clearly emerged from the debates as a viable alternative now, and that is one reason why you see a new emphasis from the Obama campaign on being more specific about the next four years should the president win re-election.
Commander in Chief Test
Mr. Romney’s demeanor in the third debate on foreign policy was a little mystifying at first. He seemed to agree with the president, more or less, on a range of issues, including how to handle Iran’s nuclear ambitions, whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria and the planned pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014. It was clear Mr. Romney was making a major turn for the political middle, something he had a history of doing as a politician in Massachusetts. Remember, the same guy who was pro-choice on abortion in his failed 1994 bid for the Senate against Ted Kennedy ran and won in the Republican primaries this year as a “severe conservative” embracing pro-life values.
President Obama baited Mr. Romney at several points in their final debate. But for the most part, the Republican nominee was determined to resist any flare-ups, preferring to present himself as a committed advocate for peace through strength who would be attractive to the remaining pool of undecided voters, especially women. President Obama continues to hold an advantage with women voters, but Mr. Romney has cut into that margin in some recent polls, suggesting his focus on the economy combined with a more restrained critique may be paying dividends.
Romney advisers now seem confident that what came out of the three presidential debates is a general acknowledgement that their candidate presented himself as a viable alternative in terms of being president, tackling the economy and becoming commander-in-chief. In effect, Mr. Romney used the debates to recast his own image and reset his campaign on more even footing with the president, turning the last two weeks into much more of a ground-game competition in the nine states seen as the key to the 2012 race.
There is a sense now that the Obama campaign is conceding North Carolina to the Romney camp, which was not a surprise. Democrats narrowly won the state four years ago and gambled they could do it again this year when they held their nominating convention in Charlotte. But the latest polls indicate a steady shift in the state toward Mr. Romney, something my VOA colleague, Chris Simkins, noticed on his recent trip down South. In addition, Chris noted a strong turnout of early voters in Republican areas of North Carolina, a sign that they are much more excited than they were for John McCain four years ago.
But if you put North Carolina into a red column for the Republicans, you might think about coloring Nevada blue for Democrats. The president won that state four years ago and seems to have a narrow but stable lead there this year, with some help from Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.
So if we take those states out of the tossup list, we are left with seven key states for the stretch run: Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire. At the moment, the Romney camp believes it has a slight advantage in Florida and maybe Colorado. The Obama campaign feels good about Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and, most importantly, Ohio. Right now Virginia looks like the closest thing to a pure toss-up state in this year’s election, though that could shift in the final days.
Ohio, more than any other state, is seen as the number one swing state in this year’s election. Four years ago the Obama team won a convincing victory in Ohio, and they have worked hard to keep their operation primed for this year’s re-election effort. In addition, Democrats had a big turnout last year to defeat a Republican-inspired referendum that would have limited the rights of public employee unions to bargain collectively. That landslide victory may have set the stage for a stronger than normal Democratic showing in Ohio for this year’s presidential race, where both campaigns are fighting hammer and tong for the state’s 18 Electoral votes.
Remember, no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio. We’ll see in the next two weeks whether Mitt Romney makes one last all-out effort to overtake the president there, or decides to try a different route to getting to the magic number of 270 Electoral votes needed to win the White House.