FISHERSVILLE, VA.: The presidential race enters its final month enlivened by two events with the potential to reshape the contest or perhaps negate each other. Soon after Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance came Friday’s encouraging economic news, not a minute too soon for President Barack Obama.
Strategists say the race is tightening, which was largely expected even before Obama’s flat appearance on the debate stage Wednesday night, when his Republican challenger had arguably the best 90 minutes of his candidacy thus far.
Republican volunteers and strategists in the nine most competitive states are encouraged as never before, saying Romney is squarely back in a contest that was threatening to slip away.
Thirty-six hours after the candidates’ first face-to-face meeting, however, Obama crossed a huge psychological barrier. The government reported that unemployment fell to 7.8 percent in September, down from 8.1 percent. It was the first time since the opening days of Obama’s presidency in 2009 that the rate dipped below 8 percent.
Now with one month left until the Nov. 6 election and millions of people already voting, the question is whether Romney can spin his 90 minutes of debate gold into a path toward a four-year presidency.
The trick for Romney is to translate an often wonky, hard-to-follow debate, viewed by an estimated 67.2 million people, into momentum that has eluded him in stumbles over the London Olympics, Libya and the 47 percent of Americans who don’t owe federal income taxes.
Can Romney close the gap?
Strategists in both parties say Romney is likely to gain in the polls. But many question whether he can close the gaps that Obama seems to have opened in Ohio and elsewhere.
Presidential debates “are not as important as they used to be,” largely because voters have so many other sources of information and opinion, said Paul Shumaker, a Republican strategist in North Carolina, one of the most contested states. “Romney performed beyond expectations,” Shumaker said, but it may be hard to sustain the lift.
“The problem going into the next debate” on Oct. 16, he said, is that Romney “has raised the bar very high for himself.”
Obama, meanwhile, seized Friday’s jobs report like a tired swimmer grabbing a raft, using it to deflect chatter about his disappointing debate performance. “We are moving forward again,” he told a Virginia crowd.
Obama draws cash
On Saturday, Obama and his party reported combined campaign donations of $181 million for September, their best fundraising month of the campaign and just short of their record of $190 million in the 2008 campaign, also in September. Romney’s campaign has not released its report for the month yet.
Obama took time off for a 20th anniversary celebration with his wife, Michelle, postponed from the day of the first presidential debate last week, while Romney devoted time to preparing for the next debate before an evening rally in Apopka, Fla.
Romney took a second stab at softening the damage done from secretly recorded remarks in which he said 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims dependent on government aid.
“I said something that’s just completely wrong,” Romney told Fox News. “I care about 100 percent, and that’s been demonstrated throughout my life.”
If nothing else, Romney’s solid debate performance netted him more time to make his case to undecided voters.
“Hope was restored in 90 minutes,” said Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
Many activists wish it had come sooner. Obama’s experienced voter-turnout operation already is marching supporters by the thousands to early polling sites in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio, the most fiercely contested state of all.
If the election were today, Obama probably would carry Ohio, making Romney’s path to the 270 needed electoral votes extremely narrow. Public and internal polls show Obama ahead by 5 to 8 percentage points.