State of the Race By Mark Halperin

One Obama-Romney debate down, two more to go. This just got interesting

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1 What went down in Denver?

Distracted by his Oval Office duties, Obama scaled back a number of debate-prep sessions. Then, assuming that the Mitt Romney showing up onstage would be easy pickings, the President bumbled into one of the great failures in recent campaign history. And as fate would have it, Romney turned in one of the stronger performances in memory, showing a measured tone and a cool confidence he has rarely displayed in five years on the campaign trail.

With less than a month before Election Day, the presidential contest is now a horse race. Here are the big questions, and answers, about what happened and what happens next:

2 What impact did the first debate have?

With a huge audience of 67 million, it gave Romney's campaign the momentum and assurance it had lacked all year. Republicans were on the verge of giving up their horse for dead; now Romney is enjoying a remarkable renaissance: more contributions, more conservative-activist enthusiasm, bigger crowds, better media coverage, all building on one another in a virtuous cycle. Many Democrats remain freaked out and stunned by the President's failure, exacerbated by the reality that if he had outgunned his rival in Denver, the race might be over.

3 But has the relative standing of the two candidates changed?

Romney is reveling in the kind of polling bounce Obama saw after his convention in Charlotte. The Republican has not only improved his position in the horse race; surveys show voters view him more favorably than before overall and on characteristics like leadership. He seems more comfortable sharing endearing and inspiring personal stories in his revamped stump speech. Team Obama claims that national polls are exaggerating the debate's impact on the contest and that there haven't been significant changes in the battleground states.

4 Are Obama's advisers right about that?

Although some new polls may tempt Romney into taking another look at competing in Michigan and Pennsylvania, in the end the race will almost certainly come down to the same nine states that have defined the contest for months: Florida, North Carolina and Virginia in the Southeast; New Hampshire in the Northeast; Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin in the Midwest; and Nevada and Colorado in the West. Obama's biggest advantage remains his standing in these states, all of which he won in 2008, but his margins have narrowed.

5 What advantages do the Democrats have beyond the Electoral College?

Several. The White House has largely won the voter-registration wars in the battleground states, and recent court decisions on voting hours and ballot access in such states as Ohio and Pennsylvania have gone Obama's way. Romney, meanwhile, has yet to crack the identity-politics code that would help him eat into Obama's overwhelming support among women, Hispanics, African Americans and younger voters. And after raising a best-in-cycle $181 million in September, Democrats no longer expect to be significantly outspent in the Big Nine states (something they worried about for most of the year).

6 What does the President need to do now to get back in command of the race?

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