It's over. Gov. Mitt Romney's statements last week about the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, followed by the release this week of a video of Mr. Romney at a May fundraiser, have brought the 2012 election to an early end.
At least that is what you'd take away from some pundits. But this is a classic example of the commentariat investing moments with more meaning than they deserve.
Mr. Romney's comments about Americans who don't pay taxes were, as he admitted during a Monday press conference, "inelegant." But every campaign has its awkward moments that the media magnify. Mr. Obama had his after saying on July 13, "You didn't build that." For a while thereafter, Team Obama could do little right. Then it passed.
This moment, too, will pass for Mr. Romney. More important, the past week's events have not significantly altered the contours of the race. A month ago, Gallup had Mr. Obama at 45% and Mr. Romney at 47%. On Wednesday, Gallup reported 47% for Obama, 46% for Romney. A month ago Rasmussen said it was 45% for Mr. Obama, 43% for Mr. Romney. In its Wednesday poll, Rasmussen reported 46% for Obama, 47% for Romney.
Presidential races can look one way now but much differently on Election Day. In mid-September 1980, President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan 44% to 40% in the Gallup poll. By late October, Reagan had slumped to 39% in Gallup, while Mr. Carter had risen to 47%. Reagan won by nine points.
As for the here-and-now, one key number to watch is Mr. Obama's vote share. In the past month, there have been 83 national polls and daily tracking surveys. Mr. Obama reached 50% in just nine and his average was 47%. That is bad news for an incumbent when attitudes about the No. 1 issue—the economy—are decidedly sour.
This isn't to suggest the Romney campaign doesn't have big challenges. But both camps do.
In the two weeks before the presidential debates begin, Mr. Romney must define more clearly what he would do as president. In spelling out his five-point plan for the middle class, he'll have to deepen awareness of how each element would help families in concrete, practical ways, and offer optimism for renewed prosperity.
Mr. Romney and his team (and supporters) must also steel themselves for more brutal attacks. The Florida fundraising video will not likely be the last surprise. The Romney campaign has largely refused to respond to attacks as a waste of time and resources. But in politics, sometimes the counter punch is stronger than the punch.
There's little tolerance among Republican donors, activists and talking heads for more statements by Mr. Romney that the media can depict as gaffes. But concerns about avoiding missteps must not cause Mr. Romney to favor cautious and bland. To win, he'll need to be bold and forceful as he offers a compelling agenda of conservative reform.
Mr. Obama's challenges may be more daunting. His strategy hasn't worked. Team Obama planned to use its big financial edge to bury Mr. Romney under negative ads over the summer. From April 15 to Labor Day, they spent an estimated $215 million on TV. But this was more than offset by conservative groups (principally American Crossroads, which I helped found). While Mr. Obama drained his coffers his own negatives climbed, and Mr. Romney partially repaired his image with voters.
Mr. Obama needs a different strategy, but his team seems stubbornly focused merely on disqualifying Mitt Romney by whatever argument or means necessary. Yet as Rahm Emanuel has repeated for most of the year, Mr. Obama must, as he put it on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 2, "lay out an agenda and a clear vision of the next four years" or he'll lose.
The blunt fact is that Mr. Obama's economic policies are still not working. And in a tacit declaration that they won't, the Federal Reserve has announced a third round of quantitative easing. Team Obama realizes this is a serious indictment of its handling of the economy, so it is intensifying attacks on Mr. Romney as an economic royalist.
The campaign's next likely inflection point will be the debates, which start Oct. 3. Both candidates will be under intense pressure. Mr. Romney, a skilled debater, must reassure voters he's up to the job of being president. Fluid and agile, Mr. Obama will be expected to command each encounter. If he doesn't, polls may slowly shift against him.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, September 20, 2012.