What was starting to seem like a boringly foregone conclusion came alive on the night of Oct. 3. In the first of three presidential debates, an affable and unruffled Mitt Romney outclassed Barack Obama. The president looked and sounded tired, and failed to mount anything remotely resembling a clear defense of his four years in office, let alone an inspiring vision for the four to come.
For Romney, the debate came as a relief after a difficult month. Since the Republican and Democratic conventions, there has been a sizable poll bounce for Obama, but nothing of the sort for Romney. Two public-relations disasters took their toll in September: In one, the Republican contrived to sound petty and unstatesmanlike as news was breaking that the American ambassador to Libya had been murdered by extremists. In another, the rich businessman appeared to have written off 47 per cent of the country as useless parasites who would vote for his opponent because they did not pay income tax.
As a result, although Obama went into the first debate with a lead of only three points in the national polls, he was ahead in nine of the 10 swing states that will determine the outcome, while Romney led by only a fraction of a point in the 10th, North Carolina. In Ohio, long considered the most reliable bellwether in the union, Obama had a lead of more than five per cent. Even on the issue that should be Romney's trump card, voters' perceptions of who would do best on the economy, the Republican had fallen behind.
Romney has not so much a mountain to climb as a series of steep hills, and not much time to do it in, with the election set for Nov. 6. In the debate, he clambered up the first of those slopes.
Obama still has to survive two more presidential debates, as well as a vice-presidential one pitting Rep. Paul Ryan against Vice-President Joe Biden, not to mention several possibly gloomy economic reports and the possibility of an October surprise, either at home or abroad.
All this points to a race in which the outcome will be uncertain to the end. Nobody knows whose voters are more likely to turn out to vote, and how much difference might be made by a last-minute television-advertising blitz.
The hope is that, in the final month, voters may turn to considering the issues in more depth. Even by the low standards of recent times, both candidates have run negative, small-minded campaigns. Obama's descent into the gutter has been especially tawdry. Rather than defend his own record or lay out what he wants to do about the deficit, the erstwhile candidate of hope has set his attack dogs on such weighty issues as how much tax Romney paid or how many jobs were lost due to the work of Bain Capital, the company that Romney for the most part ran rather well.
The best Democratic speech of the season was actually made by former president Bill Clinton. Those failures caught up with Obama in Denver. He can do better than that.
Romney has absurdly tried to blame Obama for the horrors of a recession that the president inherited from George W. Bush and which economists give him credit for coping with. Second, Romney has repeatedly run away from saying in detail what he would do differently.
That may be because he wants to avoid restating the impractical and extreme positions he embraced to win his party's nomination, including refusing to raise any taxes to deal with the deficit. As it is, however, Romney's case for election -- given his long record as a flip-flopper -- is hard to pin down.
Whatever happens on Nov. 6, America will emerge from this election an extremely divided country. At present, nearly two in three whites will vote for Romney, while four out of five nonwhites will vote for Obama.
The ideological divide is wider than in any recent election. Obama is still moaning that the rich should pay more taxes. Romney still tends to blame big government for everything. A Romney victory would see a sharp change of direction, with deep cuts in both taxes and spending and the repeal of Obama's cumbersome health-care and financial-services reforms.
The pettiness of the campaign seems especially striking given the challenges the next president will face. Consider the deficit. America's gross debt now exceeds 100 per cent of its GDP, and three waves of fiscal crisis are approaching: the five per cent hit to GDP that will occur after Jan. 1 as the Bush tax cuts expire and deep, Congressionally mandated cuts to government spending are triggered; the need to close a deficit that is running at above $1 trillion this year for the fourth year in a row; and, the long-term tsunami of "entitlements" that America's elderly expect to get, but which the country cannot afford.
Hope flickered when Romney picked Ryan as his running mate. The conservative congressman is one of the few politicians to have looked at this problem seriously and to have produced a plan, one that makes uncomfortable but necessary reading. Instead, Ryan appears to have been silenced, transmogrified into a check-shirted, all-American dad whose principal interest is hunting.
Every election tends to get billed as the most important in decades, but this one really is. It is time the candidates and the public started treating it that way.