Overheated pundits are already declaring the race over. But there's plenty of time for momentum to shift back in his favor.
Take a breath, Washington. It's too early to write off Mitt Romney.
First, let's deal with the obvious. There is no question that the GOP nominee is a flawed candidate, starting with his original sin: a history of flip-flops that belies a lack of ideological conviction.
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Then there is the matter of the Romney campaign allowing President Obama's team to define Romney this summer as a heartless, out-of-touch CEO who likes to fire people. And only a fool would ignore the past three weeks of political malpractice: missed opportunities at the GOP convention; a ham-handed response to violence in the Middle East; campaign infighting; and, the latest, Romney captured on hidden camera dismissing 47 percent of the country as people hooked on the government dole.
Worse yet, polls show a growing number of voters believe that the country is on the right track, a sign that the Democratic convention -- specifically, former President Clinton -- touched a chord.
It's easy to dump on Romney. But, remember, some of the same people counting him out today dumped on Obama a few weeks back. Pundits have short memories. Here are five ways the campaign narrative could turn against Obama.
- Bad news on the economy. Americans are hurting, and the president owns this economy. Two more unemployment reports are due out before the election. "It's not over for the simple fact that the economy means [Obama] has a national ceiling of about 51 [percent]," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who has witnessed the premature burial of many candidates. Still, like most Democrats, Lehane is grateful that Obama drew Romney as a rival. "The only reason it is not over is [because] there is time on the clock and the score is within reach because of the economy," he said in an email. "But they don't have a QB capable of mounting a winning drive."
- A foreign-policy crisis. Had Romney not rushed to make the assault on U.S. embassies a political issue, the mess in the Middle East might be a bigger problem for Obama. Rather than filing stories about the Romney gaffe, journalists may have pointed their pens at Obama and asked, "Who lost the Arab street?" But the president is not off the hook: History shows that nothing makes a president look weak more quickly than a bungled foreign-policy crisis.
- A bad debate. During the contentious Democratic nomination fight in 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a debate that Obama is "very likable." Obama responded with a curt, "You're likable enough, Hillary." It was called a major gaffe, and more than one pundit used it as a proof point for their case against an Obama presidency. Anything can go wrong in a debate, and Obama is not a perfect debater.
- A gaffe. Obama is running a better-than-average campaign, but he's not above a mistake. Indeed, Romney's gaffe at a secretly recorded fundraiser has an eerie parallel to a time not that long ago when Obama dismissed a huge swath of the electorate: "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," Obama said in 2008. "And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." A bone-headed, insensitive thing to say in the midst of a close election -- and yet, Obama survived.
- A Romney turnaround. Romney is not a good politician, and his staff's performance has been uneven at best. But these are not dumb people. Odds are they'll figure out a way to pull out of this spiral and shift attention to a more positive narrative. A series of policy speeches might do it. And there is the important fact that Republicans are girded to outspend Democrats by a sizable amount this fall: A killer ad or an innovative get-out-the-vote operation could make a difference in a close election.
The obvious question, amid the battery of self-inflicted wounds, is whether Romney has what it takes to keep it close.
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