President Barack Obama phoned Mitt Romney on Wednesday to congratulate him on clinching the Republican nomination. For a while during the volatile primary season, it looked iffy whether the former Massachusetts governor would win the necessary 1,144 delegates before the convention in Tampa, but he did with an overwhelming victory Tuesday in the Texas primary.
Now we have a presidential race that could go either way. Obama leads Romney by just 2 percentage points in the average of recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics. Republicans eager to unseat Obama are coalescing behind their nominee, and in stark contrast to four years ago, it's likely Romney and other GOP groups will wind up outspending Democrats.
Nobody can predict with any confidence what will happen in 160 days, but here are five things we'll be watching:
1 A choice or a referendum?
The Romney campaign is determined to make this election a referendum on the incumbent, while the Obama campaign is determined to make it about Romney as president — a choice between two visions for America.
The next three months will be critical in determining whether the president can define Romney as an unacceptable alternative — a vulture capitalist with a weak record as governor, sure to embrace the most extreme Republican policies — and whether Romney can mount an are-you-better-off campaign.
"What do we have to show for 31/2 years of President Obama?" Romney asked recently in New Hampshire. "Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump?"
Obama has spent $25 million on a positive TV campaign touting his record pulling the country back from economic catastrophe but expect much more effort to be spent tearing down Romney. It's a conventional strategy, but it carries significant risk for the incumbent.
Among Obama's greatest assets is his likability. Polls consistently show voters trust his values and like him personally, even while opposing his policies or disapproving of his job performance. A nasty campaign from the candidate who promised to be different, to aim higher, could damage the president's image as much as Romney's.
"He's going so negative so early, he's destroying the brand that he cultivated," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "Hope and change has given way to fear and smear."
2 The electoral map.
The national polls are fascinating, but what really matters is what's happening in the critical battleground states: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado.
Look at that map, and current polling, and it's clear Obama has far more room for error than Romney.
How so? Obama could lose both mega-battleground states of Florida and Ohio (combined 47 electoral votes) and still have multiple paths to the 270 electoral votes needed to win. And if Romney loses Florida, where polls currently show a dead heat, it's all over.
Romney, meanwhile, needs to win back three states that Obama won in 2008 and George W. Bush won in 2004: Indiana (which looks safe for Romney), North Carolina (a dead heat) and Virginia (Obama leading slightly). On top of that, he would have to pick off a state in the industrial belt, say Ohio or Pennsylvania. Even then Romney needs to win another state won by Obama four years ago — perhaps New Hampshire or Colorado.
The battleground map is sure to change. But as things stand, the map strongly favors Obama.
3 Don't assume it will be close.
Polls show a razor-thin race at the moment, and after Florida decided the winner in 2000 and Ohio decided it in 2004, it's natural to assume this will be another squeaker. History suggests otherwise.
Presidential re-election campaigns are rarely close, as the electorate typically swings strongly one way or the other. Bush narrowly beat John Kerry in 2004, but that was the first close re-election race since 1916 when Woodrow Wilson narrowly won a second term against Republican Charles Evans Hughes.
Based on historical precedent, come October the contest could well shift dramatically for or against Obama's re-election.
4 Expect the unexpected.
Even the most meticulously organized campaigns inevitably face developments outside their control. A spike in gas prices? A natural disaster? An Israeli strike on Iran?
How each candidate reacts could be a decisive factor in what happens in November.
5 The economy.
Nothing worries Obama strategists more than the prospect of the economy starting to head south again.
The economic news in recent months has been a mixed bag, with strong jobs reports, followed by weaker reports. Polls show most voters still pessimistic about the country's direction. Whether the public perceives the economy turning around or getting worse may ultimately be more important than the hundreds of millions in campaign spending and anything the candidates say or do.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]
Correction: Woodrow Wilson defeated Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. An earlier version of this story had the wrong Republican candidate.