The Monday night showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney was not just the final debate between the two men — it was in all likelihood the last major moment of this presidential campaign.
Two candidates locked in an arm-to-arm wrestling match for six months now start a two-week sprint to Nov. 6 with the contours of their race largely solidified — a tight battle either campaign seems eminently capable of winning. Unforeseen events could still alter its complexion, but after months of marquee speeches, party conventions, and debates watched by tens of millions, voters' views of the candidates by Tuesday will bear a striking resemblance to their perceptions on Election Day.
The race hasn't been decided, but the remaining battles will be fought on the margins. A large shift among voters, as happened after the Democratic convention and the first presidential debate, is now highly unlikely.
"The final debate is the final major planned event of the campaign — the end of the official calendar if you will," said Steve Schmidt, a GOP strategist and senior adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "In a race as close as this one, the last week will be spent on executing voter-turnout operations and making closing arguments to the persuadable voters in a small number of states."
The lasting impact of the third and final showdown is unclear. The current commander in chief appeared to win the debate decisively, but the foreign-policy emphasis could diminish its resonance with voters.
Not surprisingly, the candidates made sure to make periodic detours back to domestic issues throughout the 90 minutes, so much so that debate moderator Bob Schieffer cut them both off near the end with "I think we all love teachers."
The campaigns are now left fighting for the small sliver of remaining undecided voters. In the last election, that battle hardly mattered because Obama's lead over McCain was insurmountable.
That's not the case now. National polls stand at a dead heat and surveys of battlegrounds like Iowa, Ohio, and Virginia are neck-and-neck. Only 3 percent of voters may remain undecided, according to an ABC News/Washington Post national poll of likely voters, but they can swing the race.
"I think there's going to be an enormous push through all means of communication to persuade people," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and presidential-campaign veteran.
Voters, particularly those in White House battlegrounds, have been pummeled by messages from both campaigns. But Devine said some low-information voters are just starting to mull their choice.
"There's a small but "¦ very important group of voters who are coming on line right now," he said. "That group of voters, 4 to 6 percent of the electorate, are people who come late to elections. They tend to be the most important of voters.
"These people are now going into a decision-making mode," he said. "When you have people in that mode who are persuadable, you can do a lot in that period."
Of course, unforeseen events could still shake up the race, just as last month's deadly attack in Libya did. Individual jobs reports have seemed to have little impact on the race, but a particularly weak or strong showing next Friday could tip some voters. And campaigns could also make a mistake just as they want to be making their closing arguments.
"Going forward from here, neither campaign can make a mistake," Schmidt said. "The race is too close to commit any turnovers, to lose momentum by your own hand."