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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at a Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colo., Oct. 23, 2012. (Brian Snyder/REUTERS)
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at a Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colo., Oct. 23, 2012. (Brian Snyder/REUTERS)

U.S. POLITICS

Romney passes plausibility test, turning cakewalk into tight race Add to ...

How does “Mittle” Romney get away with it?

The Republican nominee’s tack to the centre during the debates has dramatically reconfigured the presidential race and is proving infuriatingly effective for Obama campaign strategists trying to define Mr. Romney as a dangerous plutocrat.

In the space of 4 1/2 hours – the duration of the three debates – Mr. Romney’s public image underwent a stunning metamorphosis. Goodbye Thurston Howell, hello Gandhi. In Monday’s debate on foreign policy, he even used the word “peace” a dozen times.

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It hardly matters that President Barack Obama “won” Monday’s encounter. Mr. Romney had one goal and he achieved it. It was not to best Mr. Obama – since foreign policy is an afterthought for most voters in this election – only to look competent and unscary.

Mr. Romney aced that test in the first debate, likely the only one that counts. He persuaded enough people to see him as a plausible prospect for the Oval Office, and in so doing, he turned an Obama cakewalk into a tight race that is forcing Democrats to pull out all the stops.

“When you have an incumbent who is vulnerable, his opponent still needs to pass the plausibility test. Romney is there now,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.

To be sure, Mr. Obama is still favoured to win on Nov. 6. He starts out with more electoral college votes (270 are needed to win) given his lock on California, New York and most of the Northeast. That means he has more “paths to victory” than Mr. Romney.

The election will be decided in seven states: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire. Mr. Obama leads in all of these among registered voters, but is in a statistical tie with Mr. Romney among the voters most likely to go the polls.

The vaunted Obama ground game will be tested much more than in 2008.

Mr. Obama’s biggest leads are among so-called “low propensity” voters, particularly young people and minorities, who need more coaxing to get to the polls than in 2008. Democrats have a phenomenal get-out-the-vote machine and it is now in overdrive.

“We are winning early voting in states that are going to decide this election,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina insisted in a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

But will that be enough to prevail on election day? In Sunday’s Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll, Mr. Romney led the President among white voters by 59 per cent to 36 per cent and among seniors by 60 per cent to 35 per cent. Both groups vote in big numbers and do not need to be prodded to the polls by vast armies of campaign volunteers.

If the debates proved anything, it is that a lot of swing voters do not care very much that Mr. Romney flip-flops on abortion or Afghanistan. They only care that he passes the presidential sniff test, no matter how much Mr. Obama warns them otherwise.

“We joke about ‘Romnesia,’ ” Mr. Obama told a Tuesday rally in Florida. “But this is about trust. There’s no more serious issue in a presidential campaign than trust.”

Mr. Romney’s biggest challenge may not be keeping up the “moderate Mitt” shtick for at least two more weeks. After all, it is probably closer to the real Romney than any other persona he has projected during this campaign.

No, Mr. Romney’s biggest task between now and Nov. 6 may be keeping the Republican base quieted. The Romney that showed up to the presidential debates would never have won the nomination. Will the rank and file cut him enough slack now that he has?

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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