Wednesday's Gallup poll had President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney essentially tied, with Mr. Obama at 47% and Mr. Romney at 46%. That's good news for the challenger: Mr. Romney has absorbed a punishing three-month Obama television barrage that drained the incumbent's war chest. Historically, undecided voters tend to break late for the challenger.
Mr. Romney and his campaign have also raised their game. After Mr. Obama declared on July 13 that "If you've got a business, you didn't build that," Mr. Romney went on offense, saying the following Tuesday in Pennsylvania that the notion entrepreneurs didn't build their businesses was "insulting." Wednesday in Ohio, Mr. Romney attacked Mr. Obama for not having met with his Jobs Council for six months. Thursday in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney belittled the White House's explanation that the president had failed to do so because he "has a lot on his plate." The following Tuesday in Nevada before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Obama over cuts in defense and veterans care.
Each time, Mr. Romney's message was delivered in the morning and dominated the day's coverage. That change appears now to be standard procedure for Team Romney.
Last week Mr. Romney began laying out a crisper, shorter economic agenda. His "Plan for a Stronger Middle Class" is built around five priorities: promoting more domestic energy, cultivating skills for economic success, making trade work for America, cutting the deficit, and championing small business (including tax and regulatory reform and the repeal of ObamaCare). It also compares the candidates' records in office. Jobs, home values, and family income rose—while budget deficits and unemployment declined—in Massachusetts under Mr. Romney, whereas all these measures are in the wrong direction under Mr. Obama.
Though it will require more detail, persistent explanation and defense, this is a better foundation on which to fight the election than last year's unwieldy 59-point plan for economic jobs and growth.
Mr. Romney is also tougher. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid alleged that Mr. Romney went years without paying taxes, Mr. Romney didn't ask for an apology. He responded to this smear by challenging Mr. Reid "to put up or shut up."
Mr. Romney also began running more positive ads. The election will not be won just by highlighting Mr. Obama's failures, a job better left (mostly) to outside groups. Because it can put the candidate on camera, the Romney campaign is better positioned to reassure voters that he has a plan to create jobs, reduce spending, and make America more prosperous. This is vital, since both sides have pushed up their opponent's negative ratings to the high-40s.
Mr. Obama's numbers are driven by the bad economy, so there's little he can do. And those who strongly disapprove of his handling of the economy vastly outnumber those who strongly approve. Mr. Romney's task is less difficult: Voters are asking if he is too rich to care about ordinary people, has a real economic plan that makes sense, and is both strong and presidential enough.
That's why Team Romney appears focused on making certain his first presidential decision—picking a running mate—is done right and rolled out properly.
And then there is Mr. Romney's convention speech, which needs to be powerful. More Americans will watch it than any other election event except the debates. (In 2008, more than 38 million Americans watched the two candidates' acceptance addresses.) This will be Mr. Romney's best moment to provide insights into his character, share the values that guide him, and lay out a growth agenda.
Among other things, Mr. Romney should talk about his father's modest upbringing, his wife's illness, and his wealth. Americans know nothing about the first, little about the second, and (courtesy of Team Obama) much about the third. Mr. Romney can show more of his personal side, which would reveal a man of enormous decency and good character.
Mr. Romney will be on strong ground defending free enterprise as a system that rewards initiative, hard work and sacrifice—and in doing so creates widespread prosperity that he will seek to extend to every corner of the nation.
There's likely to be a modest, short-lived bump in Mr. Romney's polls after his convention speech. Ignore that. In this close election, the real benefit will be in the impression, information and values that remain with swing voters who'll make up their minds late and decide the election.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 8, 2012.