Romney's Next Test: Sustaining His Newfound Momentum

His commanding debate performance gives him an opening, but Romney still has little room for error.

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Reuters

DENVER -- Republican nominee Mitt Romney hit his stride Wednesday night. Where President Obama was flat, Romney was energetic. He was also prepared, aggressive and at times, persuasive.

But the real challenge starts now.

Time and time again over the course of this campaign, Romney has surged only to step on his own momentum. And with 33 days before Election Day and early voting well underway, Romney has got to massage a solid debate performance into a winning streak.

"There's zero room for error because he's already behind," said Patrick Murphy, a Colorado-based Republican strategist. "It could be end of the Barack Obama momentum or the beginning of Romney momentum."

It could be. But Romney has got to seize his most pointed attacks from the debate -- interrupting the president to remind him "but you've been president for four years!" -- and hit that message hard, again and again. Romney should keep up the poignant references to ordinary, struggling people -- the jobless Dayton woman who "grabbed his arm," the Denver mother who lost her home, the overtaxed small electronics business owner in St. Louis -- as way to diffuse the widely held perception that he's out of touch with ordinary people.

Perhaps most importantly, Romney needs to continue painting a picture of a second Obama term that looks even worse than the status quo. His dire prediction of chronic unemployment, rising health-care costs, doctor-less Medicare patients, and a debilitated military might even have caused some Obama supporters to pause.

Bottom line: Romney has got to keep Obama as snippy and humorless as he was during the debate. "It's a high-stakes week for him. It's not just the debate," said Sara Fagen, a political adviser to former President Bush.

Romney has risen to the challenge when his back is against the wall before during this campaign. But the times he has appeared on the verge of a roll, only to hit rocky patch, are just as abundant.

The glow from his victory in the New Hampshire primary fizzled in a week of clumsy responses to questions about his tax returns and business record. After trouncing a once-surging Newt Gingrich in Florida primary, Romney seemed to confirm what his harshest critics say about him when he said on CNN, "I'm not concerned about the very poor."

Coming off an aggressive performance in a primary debate in February, he made an off-the-cuff remark about his wife driving "a couple of Cadillacs." Most recently, impressive speeches at the Republican convention by Ann Romney, Paul Ryan -- and to a lesser extent, by Romney himself -- were drowned out by widespread bewilderment over Clint Eastwood's rambling comic bit.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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