BOCA RATON — With the debates now over, the final sprint of the 2012 presidential campaign begins and the trajectory seems as murky as ever.
Monday night's ho hum debate in Boca Raton highlighted how Republican nominee Mitt Romney agrees with President Barack Obama's foreign policy at least as much as he disagrees. Sounding much more dovish at Lynn University than his hawkish rhetoric on the campaign trail, Romney held his own against an aggressive president.
Hard to see how this final debate changed much.
Now to a large extent, the race is out of the hands of Obama and Romney. The big, decisive moments are over.
Barring a last-minute surprise, the final two weeks are all about local campaign rallies and a feverish effort by both sides to mobilize every last supporter in the battleground states that will decide the presidency. Even the many millions of dollars in TV ads airing between now and Nov. 6 may mean little, given how saturated the airwaves already have been.
The biggest unknown? Is Romney's momentum after the first debate subsiding or still ticking upward? There is evidence for both, but talk to the campaign professionals on both sides and nobody has a clear sense.
What we do know is that it is a dead heat mainly because of Romney's strong debate performances and Obama's passive first debate.
The Obama campaign spent much of the summer pummeling Romney with TV ads depicting him as a cold-hearted vulture capitalist thoroughly out of touch with middle-class Americans.
Then 67 million Americans who tuned into the first debate saw a different Republican nominee than the man depicted by the Obama campaign. And they saw him beside a president who looked like he barely wanted to be there.
"No one tuned into that first debate saying, 'I want to see what Barack Obama is like.' Everyone who went into that first debate was saying, 'I want to see what Mitt Romney is like,' '' said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "And they saw that he didn't have horns. . . . They had driven Romney so far into the ground that they were almost victims of their own success."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., contends Obama's ability to continue criticizing Romney has been minimized by Romney's debate performances.
"Once he took to that stage at that first debate and he showed that what they were saying about him wasn't true, the Obama campaign lost a tremendous amount of credibility among voters across the country, especially here in Florida," Rubio said.
Both campaigns long predicted a close race, but weeks ago it was easy to find Obama allies quietly speculating whether he might reach at least 320 electoral votes. (It takes 270 to win.) Today, Obama allies are talking up scenarios where Obama might reach 272 electoral votes.
That probably explains why Romney, once the clear underdog, on Monday night looked like the candidate playing it safe. Obama came at him hard, calling Romney "wrong and reckless" and repeatedly accusing Romney of backpedaling on prior statements or positions. The president may have controlled much of the night, but Romney again showed stature beside the president.
"Attacking me is not an agenda," Romney said twice.
If he's proven anything during this presidential campaign, it's that debates can matter — a lot. They mattered in the Republican primary, when Romney repeatedly saw his frontrunner status threatened, and after three general election debates, they may be what puts him in the White House.
It's a cliché that happens to be true: It's all about turnout now.
If the race remains as close as it currently appears in Florida and other battleground states, whichever side has the most energy and the stronger voter turnout operation will win the White House.
"When I stop by at (GOP) victory offices around the state, I see so many people there. They're anxious. They want to make sure that Romney wins," said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, predicting grass roots enthusiasm will deliver the state's 29 electoral votes to Romney.
The Obama campaign, though, has a vast campaign operation working to squeeze every last vote from Florida and other battlegrounds.
"If you told me this race could come down to the ground game in nine battleground states, I'd be happy to take Mitt Romney's $10,000 and bet it on us,'' senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]