There is now a recognizable path for Mitt Romney to win the presidency.
It still goes through Ohio, and the climb remains steep, but the Republican challenger has momentum on his side for the first time in months.
If nothing else changes between now and Nov. 6, I see a narrow win for Romney and early retirement for President Barack Obama.
If that happens, Obama will have no one to blame but himself. Perhaps he was following the advice of campaign gurus when he played the role of Clint Eastwood's empty chair during the first debate with Romney early this month. But he didn't have to. He could have opened his mouth at any point and said such things as "47%," "Bain Capital," "where are your tax returns" and "why is your money in the Cayman Islands." He could have won that debate and put a virtual lock on a second term.
His inexplicable silence in that first debate put wind back in Romney's sails just as some Republicans were getting ready to abandon ship. Romney's newfound momentum translated into a bump in the polls, both nationally and in key states such as Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio. Even Pennsylvania, where Romney and Republican-leaning super PACs stopped advertising because the race seemed out of reach, looks as though it might be in play again.
In Tuesday night's second debate, Obama gave a much stronger performance, though the bar was low because his first debate was so bad. But Romney, for the most part, had a good debate, too, going toe-to-toe with the incumbent in what may go down as the most contentious presidential showdown of the television era.
So don’t be shocked if Romney's recent bounce is slow to evaporate.
But Romney supporters shouldn't be too hasty with the confetti, and Obama backers shouldn't start hanging crepe just yet. The Romney-wins scenario is predicated on if nothing else happens between now and Nov. 6. The odds are that something will happen, and in a race that has become as tight as this one, it won't have to be something huge to alter the outcome. There is one more debate, on foreign policy this time. There is one more set of unemployment numbers plus a government report on GDP growth that could sway voters who remain undecided in the final week of the race. And there are unknowns -- madmen, natural disasters or, in the spirit of Halloween, skeletons that may come tumbling out of someone's closet.
Any stumble or development can nudge the race in a new direction. Obama might be the first to tell you that momentum is as elusive as a greased pig at a county fair, seemingly firmly in your grasp and then gone. Romney, though, can let it slip away just as easily.
It comes to this: The candidate who wins Ohio will put his hand on the Bible on Jan. 20.
If Obama takes Ohio, Tuesday may turn out to have been the turning point.
But not because of the debate. An even bigger development Tuesday was the Supreme Court's decision not to review a lower court's ruling that early voting in Ohio on the weekend before the election must be allowed for everyone, not just members of the military. That gives the Obama campaign a few extra days to take advantage of its superior get-out-the-vote organization.
By some estimates, up to one-third of Ohioans will vote before Election Day. The higher the percentage of early voters, the better Romney has to do on Nov. 6 to overcome the cushion Obama will build up among early voters. There's no conspiracy here. Obama's team decided early in the campaign to devote a lot of time, effort and money to early voting operations in key states, and it's paying off in Ohio, where Democrats are voting early in much larger numbers than Republicans.
Don't be surprised if election night feels a lot like a replay of 2004. Then, it wasn't clear that President George W. Bush had won another term until the wee hours of the next morning, when he was declared the winner in Ohio.
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