Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have just two weeks to make their closing arguments.
There are few if any opportunities left for either candidate to move the 2012 race in a big way. Both campaigns are hoping that either a powerful turnout operation or a perfectly resonant message will tip the race ever so slightly in their direction.
As the candidates exchange charges and counter-charges following Monday's final debate in Boca Raton, Fla., here's POLITICO's translation of what the two sides said, what they really meant and what it tells us about the state of the race.
What they said: "Here's my plan for the next four years: Making education and training a national priority, building on our manufacturing boom, boosting American-made energy, reducing the deficits responsibly by cutting where we can and asking the wealthy to pay a little more." -- Obama, speaking to the camera in a 60-second TV ad released Tuesday.
What they meant: Look, I'm not going to promise some dramatic change from the past four years, but I do have a bunch of narrower ideas to improve things. Let me list them for you. Watch me be specific.
Between Obama's closing argument-style TV ad and his campaign's decision to mail 3.5 million booklets detailing his policy proposals, Chicago clearly wants to quash elite criticism of the president's thin second-term agenda. It's become an easy way for pundits to zing Obama: Sure, he has torn down Romney, but where are his own ideas?
Well, Obamaworld responded, they are here: a list of priorities that should not surprise anyone following the 2012 conversation but presented in a more crisp, agenda-like fashion aimed at silencing the skeptics.
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told reporters on a conference call that the new tactics weren't a reaction to the where's-the-beef criticism as much as a reflection of the fact that "we're in the closing argument phase of this campaign."
"Obviously, a lot of people have made up their minds. There is a small universe of voters who haven't. We want to make sure those voters have access to the information they need," he said.
Romney's foreign policy vision
What they said: "I think many swing voters looked at the foreign policy debate last night, and they were asking themselves, 'Does Gov. Romney pass this commander in chief test? And clearly he did. He also gave people a sense of confidence that he has a plan for what he wants to do over the next four years as it relates to positioning America around the globe and that they feel safer and securer that he does have a plan." -- Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, speaking to reporters onboard the campaign plane.
What they meant: The foreign policy stuff was fun while it lasted, but we're going to win this election on economic issues. Romney had to pass a minimal bar of competence and gravitas, and he did that. We're not looking back or returning to a fight about Osama bin Laden.
With the instant polls showing a win for Obama in Monday night's foreign policy debate, Romney and his advisers aren't spending much time re-litigating that encounter. Because in the end, this isn't how they think they're going to win the election. As long as the former Massachusetts governor didn't come off as an utter dunce or a nuclear trigger-happy Barry Goldwater-type, they're fine with it.
If that means Romney heads into Election Day without having spelled out a more coherent foreign policy doctrine -- something clearer than the "peace through strength" shtick common to almost all GOP candidates -- then so be it. Despite Romney having stumbled in several exchanges, the campaign unfurled a figurative "Mission Accomplished" banner in a statement declaring he "convincingly won the debate."
Romney's campaign released three ads Tuesday, all of them clipping from the Boca debate. In two, Romney hits Obama for defense cuts and his alleged "apology tour" overseas. The third, called "The Clear Path," shows Romney speaking to the camera during his closing statement last night, emphasizing issues of job creation and debt.
It's pretty easy to guess which of those ads is going to be running in the heaviest rotation.
Obama's contrast on national security
What they said: "Gov. Romney's foreign policy has been wrong and reckless. [In the debate,] he was all over the map. Did you notice that?" -- Obama at a rally in Delray Beach, Fla.
What he meant: Hey, all you folks saying I can't call Romney a flip-flopper and an extremist at the same time: Watch this drive. It's the closing stretch of a tough campaign, and I'm going to take this guy out with any tool at my disposal.
The conventional wisdom among politicos has been that Obama and his allies ultimately would have to decide between calling Romney an opportunist with no core and branding him as an archconservative with radical ideas. With Election Day in sight, Obama apparently disagrees.
Instead, he and Joe Biden are lobbing every rhetorical grenade available in Romney's direction. If that means seizing on his inconsistencies ("He was all over the map"), then terrific. Calling him a reliably wrongheaded foreign policy novice? Sure, let's do that, too.
The whatever-it-takes approach was on vivid display at Biden's campaign stop in Toledo, Ohio, on Tuesday, as the vice president mocked Romney's policy reversals: "I was stunned and pleased that Gov. Romney had disavowed so many things he had said in the past and acknowledged the president was right on so many things."
Not that that means voters shouldn't be concerned about Romney's promises on a range of issues, foreign and domestic, of course...
What he said: "These debates have supercharged our campaign, there's no question about it. We're seeing more and more enthusiasm, more and more support." -- Romney, addressing supporters on Tuesday in Henderson, Nev.
What he meant: You gotta believe!
Romney and his aides are delighted at where they find themselves relative to the state of play a month ago. But top Republicans in and around the Romney camp are also realistic about the gap they still have to close on the swing-state map. Of the nine remaining swing states, they have to tip six or seven, with several -- Ohio and Nevada, especially -- presenting a real challenge.
If Romney's going to power his campaign over the top, he needs conservative voters to be not just enthusiastic, but markedly more so than their liberal counterparts. And he needs wavering independent and disaffected voters to view him as a winner when they walk into the ballot box.
For Romney, the thinking goes, nothing succeeds like success -- and long-awaited success at that.
Republicans have mostly given up on their hopes of turning 2012 into a 1980-style election, in which a challenger's strength on the debate stage causes a political dam to break and brings about an electoral rout. Few expect this race to turn into a landslide.
But if Romney acts and speaks like a landslide is on the way, perhaps he can create the atmospherics he needs for a small and meaningful win.
Knowns and unknowns in the 2012 finale
What they said: "We know what we know and they know what they know, and I'm confident that we're going to win this race. And we'll know who's bluffing and who isn't in two weeks." -- Axelrod, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning.
What they meant: The die is mostly cast in this election. We feel good (not great) about where we are, and there's no point in squabbling over public polling and conflicting ground-game reports when we'll all know the outcome soon enough.
Axelrod's comments channeled frustration from his own side, but really from both campaigns, at the political class's obsessive need to try to know everything. With the glut of public polling on the race -- "There is an illusion of volatility when you have 90 public polls coming out every day," Axelrod said -- journalists have enough data to piece together any number of campaign narratives.
What operatives on both sides agree on is that the campaign has tightened over the past month, both nationally and in the swing states. The biggest, market-moving events of the race -- conventions and debates -- are over and done with. Turnout operations matter -- maybe a lot -- but those operations were built weeks and months, and even years, ago.
So absent a huge external contingency, one that neither campaign can predict or create, these campaigns are warring on the margins of the 2012 vote over incremental gains and losses that public polls can't reliably detect. Every day that early voting goes on, the less room for movement there is at the end of the race.
If voters and reporters don't know everything they want to know right now, that's not the campaigns' problem. In any case, the end is near.
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