In the past 10 days, Mitt Romney's campaign has gone from Big Mo to Slow Mo.
Like a shark that must swim forward and fast, the Romney campaign needs to maintain its forward momentum -- and its heady narrative of an irresistible finish-line surge -- despite an increasing pile of polling data pointing to a race that has stabilized since Barack Obama's disastrous performance at the Oct. 3rd debate in Denver.
"Narrative" is an overrated and perishable commodity in politics. But maintaining the perception of momentum has become critical to a challenger banking on a wave of last-minute enthusiasm to defeat an incumbent with a distinct electoral map advantage and small leads in Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin.
The problem: despite a dramatically improved Romney position following the third and final presidential debate on Monday, his momentum in recent polls has slowed discernibly, owing, in part, to Obama's stronger performances in the face-offs on Long Island and in Boca Raton.
"The president seems to be a little bit stronger in some of the key states, specifically Ohio, than he was," said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown, who specializes in battleground surveys. "But it's very hard to know what the momentum situation looks like in three, four, five days."
Veteran GOP pollster David Winston thinks Romney may benefit from the advantage most challengers have among independents at the end of most presidential races, but adds: "What's the level of momentum at this point? I think that's unclear."
That's not Team Romney's public line. They claim the party started in Denver three weeks ago and has been roaring ever since.
"We have seen growing momentum and enthusiasm surging towards Gov. Romney since the first debate and all the way through to today," Romney adviser Kevin Madden told POLITICO Thursday.
Starting Wednesday, Romney campaign aides and cable surrogates fanned out to fight the latest battle in the momentum war, as Democrats spun one of their own -- a Romney stall.
"Both of our campaigns are telling you where we think the race is, and in 13 days one of us will be right and one of us will be wrong," Obama adviser David Plouffe told reporters traveling with Obama during a marathon multi-state campaign swing. "My sense is you're going to find that what was emanating out of Boston was more bluff than reality."
Early Thursday, hours after a national Gallup tracking poll of likely voters showed Romney's seven-point lead shrinking by three over the past week, the former Massachusetts governor sent supporters a cheerful email assuring them that the wind, in fact, was still at his back.
"With less than two weeks to go, we're feeling the momentum," said Romney, who previewed the argument at an appearance in Reno a day earlier. "The debates have supercharged our campaign. We're seeing more and more enthusiasm -- and more and more support. This has become more than just a campaign. It's become a national movement."
To keep the ball rolling, the Romney campaign released a three-minute Web ad entitled, appropriately enough, "Momentum," and revealed impressive fundraising totals for the first half of October -- $111.8 million -- which the conservative Washington Times cited "some good signs that Mr. Romney's momentum is not slowing."
The money is one item on the Romney momentum side of the ledger: the Obama campaign announced it had raised $20 million less in the same period.
The Romney campaign waited about two minutes to mass-blast the latest Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, which showed the GOP nominee with a 50 percent to 47 percent edge -- even though the story that accompanied the email reminded readers the result "is not one that is statistically significant" because of the poll's five-point margin of error.
Nate Silver of The New York Times' Five Thirty Eight Blog -- whose prediction of an Obama electoral college win has been beacon to despondent Democrats -- pointed out that only one of eight national polls released in the last week points to a Romney gain, and that's the online Ispos/Reuters survey. Two show no change, and five of them point to a net Obama gain of between 1 percent and 3 percent.
"The trend could also be spurious," Silver wrote on Thursday. "What isn't very likely, however, is for one candidate to lose ground. ... if the race is still moving toward him. In other words, we can debate whether Mr. Obama has a pinch of momentum or whether the race is instead flat, but it's improbable that Mr. Romney would have a day like this if he still had momentum."
The changing environment has prompted a subtle, but noticeable shift in the argument emanating from Romney's Boston brain trust: He not only has the wind at his back -- but the sun on his face, running a positive, Reaganesque campaign at the same time Obama has embraced an angry anti-Romney message and "Big Bird" cheap-seat triviality.
"It's not like the immediate progress we made after the first debate because voters have made up his mind since then," says Romney pollster Neil Newhouse of the stabilizing race. "The data indicate that we're still moving ahead. ... It's not just where we are, it's where Obama is and where his numbers are. He seems pretty stuck at 46 [percent] or 47 percent of the vote."
The big takeaway, he adds: "We're running a campaign of big ideas and change that voters want. And President Obama's is kind of nitpicky and negative."
Obama's advisers have urged reporters to ignore top-line national polling and focus on more significant state data, and their own well-documented advantages in get-out-the-vote organizing and early voting in some states.
"This has been a remarkably stable race for the past year and a half," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. "Before Romney pays lip service to momentum on the stump again -- he might want to take a look at the numbers. We're winning right now where it matters -- improving on our early vote margin over 2008 in key states across the country, and turning out our coalition now -- helping us to reach sporadic voters and freeing up resources for GOTV in the final stretch."
Democrats don't think Obama is surging in a big way. But they think the race has settled into a new normal, tight to the finish, but ultimately advantaging the president with a superior ground operation and a firm hold on the Midwest battlegrounds. The public data is in line with private Democratic polling, which showed "an environmental shift" favoring Romney and hurting all Democrats until around Oct. 18, two days after the second debate, when they saw Romney's numbers start to level off.
Despite several recent polls showing Obama with a three-point to five-point edge in Ohio, the overall trend lines haven't been great for the incumbent That's not to say the trends are great for Obama -- he has seen a significant erosion in women's s support, even though operatives on both sides think it's not as dramatic as 50-50 split of female voters reported in a new AP poll on Thursday.
"The bleeding has stopped, for the time being," said a Democratic operative working in Virginia.
Obama is "starting to shore up his position a bit in the last two weeks," says Tom Jensen with Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm that has shown Obama holding slim leads in battlegrounds and slightly behind Romney nationally.
"There's absolutely no argument I can see in any data that Mitt Romney has continued to have any momentum. And now, if anything, it seems that things are starting to move back toward the president a little bit."
Winston, the GOP pollster, instead sees a "new equilibrium," pulling Romney from his pre-debate doldrums into parity.
"What you're watching at this point are all those people who started to reevaluate after the first debate and still are," he said. "And as long as they continue to reevaluate, I think the momentum is still there."
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