After Mitt Romney's latest stumble, and polls showing leads in key states for President Obama, the tone in the political universe has become decidedly bullish on the president's chances, with some people acting as if he has locked it up. But the voters don't seem ready to declare the campaign over, and it is way too early to be writing Romney's political obituary. In a Twitter world, six weeks -- with four debates -- is an eternity.
Undeniably shell-shocked by two weeks that seemed to bring bad news on each day, Republicans are trying to regain their footing and start challenging what they fear is a growing consensus that Romney is blowing his challenge to a decidedly vulnerable president. Their message: not so fast. Not so fast with talk of Romney gaffes; not so fast with talk of falling behind in the polls; and not so fast with plans for Obama's second inaugural.
Exhibiting a trace of urgency to try to prevent that consensus from taking hold, their argument echoes the president's defense of his tax plan: It's not politics; it's math. They contend the math of the latest polls shows Romney behind, but not so far behind that it justifies some of the claims heard this week on cable television.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who backs Romney, irritated many of his fellow Republicans when he decried what he called "one of the worst weeks for any presidential candidate in a general election that any of us can remember" and predicted certain defeat "if he doesn't dramatically change his strategy." But even the most ardent Romney supporter cannot deny that there wasn't much good news for the nominee in a 19-day stretch from Aug. 30, when Clint Eastwood debated his empty chair, when Democrats held a successful convention, when Romney jumped the gun and made ill-advised foreign policy remarks on Sept. 11, and when, this week, Romney's admittedly "inelegant" remarks to fundraisers were disclosed.
In the middle of that stretch, the GOP frustration bubbled over when GOP insiders groused to Politico about the direction of the campaign.
It was not a great stretch, acknowledged Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "But that doesn't justify a premature rush to judgment," he insisted. "Pull yourself away from the piling-on of the Romney campaign and look at the data." The numbers, he said, provide perspective. "To somehow assume that the race is over because you have an awkward challenger at a time when six out of 10 voters think we're going in the wrong direction, two-thirds think we're still in a recession, a majority thinks the president's economic plan is not working, his job approval is below 50, and his ballot is below 50 -- that strikes me as just crazy."
Ayres said Obama's average lead in the public polls was 2.3 percent in June, 2.5 percent in July, 2.4 percent in August, and has been 2.6 percent in September. "It is a flat line.... That doesn't strike me as a done deal, a race that is over."
But those numbers do show Romney consistently losing, with not even his own campaign arguing that he leads the race. "Romney is behind, and his skills as a candidate are not exactly world-class," acknowledged Ayres. "But he is in a position where he could win this thing. There are a bunch of people who are not yet sold on him but they sure are open to him and what he has to say." He added that Romney can get those votes "if he can come up with a compelling vision of why their economic future is going to be brighter if they pick him instead of Obama."
It is the single biggest failure of Romney's campaign that after two years of effort he has yet to project that vision. But there are voters willing to hear him out, according to veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted a focus group with undecided voters in Virginia on Monday. Hart found voters in this battleground state have not yet bought Romney's wares. But they are still willing to let him make his case.
Hart spent an evening in suburban Fairfax with a dozen voters. As reported by Carl Leubsdorf in The Dallas Morning News, many of the voters said they were disillusioned with Obama but not sold on Romney. Pamela Zacha, 64, of Reston, said Obama was "overconfident and unrealistic." But she complained Romney has not offered a specific economic plan and said "there's still a part of me that wants to give [Obama] more of a chance." Others in the group had the same complaint -- that Romney has not been specific enough about what he would do to revive the economy.
Tom Rath, the longtime Republican figure in New Hampshire, said he is encouraged by the willingness of voters to still consider Romney despite all the recent bad publicity -- some of which he blamed on a "Greek chorus of unemployed consultants" taking shots at the campaign's decision-makers in Boston. He said Republicans need to get beyond such "distractions," and he insisted: "We can still win. It's doable. But we'll have to thread the needle a little bit." To do that, he argued, analysts will have to stop "overreacting to some of these swing-state polls."
And he urged patience, even setting a date when Republicans can legitimately worry if they still trail Obama. "The week of October 1st is probably an inflection point," Rath said. "You'll have a debate on Wednesday the 3rd, then job reports on the 5th. I think where we are polling on Columbus Day, October 8th, will tell us where this race really is. If we're still close then, it will be like baseball. The Democrats will regret that they didn't put us away early. The longer people say they are undecided, the less likely they are to go with the incumbent."