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Has the clock run out on Romney? An expert weighs in

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama seen at events.

Brian Snyder/Reuters and Carolyn Kaster/AP

The latest Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll of battle ground states shows President Barack Obama opening up a 10-point lead in Ohio, where both campaigns are holding events today. In Florida, likely voters gave the President a nine-point lead; in Pennsylvania, it is a 12-point Obama advantage. A Washington Post poll shows similar gains.

It is more bad news for the Mitt Romney campaign. Before the results were released, Professor David Lublin from the American University in Washington, D.C., sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss the campaign.

There is this assumption that coming into September, and with several Romney missteps, things are looking really bad and it's pretty much President Obama's election to win. Give some reasons why people should hold on a second before rushing to any conclusions?

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The key things that can happen are events that campaigns don't anticipate – like the unfortunate and tragic murder of our ambassador and diplomats in Libya. Also, maybe the Romney campaign will be more successful winning news cycles and getting out their message in a way that Romney starts to resonate and connect.

I view the electorate as sort of hardening concrete – and that over time, it gets more difficult to change the dynamic. But we are still six weeks out and that gives the Romney campaign a little bit of time.

I remind Canadian audiences: everyone in the recent Quebec election had counted out the PQ and assumed that Jean Charest was not only going to lose but come in third. There is a reason we hold elections rather than polls.

In terms of specific factors that could influence the race: are we talking about undecided and persuadable voters still up for grabs?

Remember, voters, even though they've made up their minds, they are not prisoners. So something big happens, and they can change their minds. A lot of it is also about turning out your base of voters. Who can actually do a better job of that on election day – and now that we're having early voting, before [election day]?

I think Romney has to start winning news cycles and getting out his message more. People thought releasing his [2011] tax information [last Friday] was stupid. I thought that was smart. He got that over with. It needed to be done. And he also used it to change the subject away from that disastrous [47 per cent] video in Florida.

I thought the [Romney] campaign started to show intelligence, and it's important for the Romney campaign particularly to show intelligence – because in general there is always the theme of, "If you can't manage your campaign, how can you manage the country?" – but particularly for Mitt Romney, since his whole theme is, "I'm a businessman and you need to trust me to run things."

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A lot of attention was paid to Romney's missteps in September: the "47 per cent" video, rushing to comment on the Libya crisis and events in the Middle East. Are these the things we are going to be talking about at the end of October closer to voting day and saying, "the wheels started coming off in September"?

[Romney] started to really have problems after the Obama campaign spent a lot of money to define him very negatively in the eyes of the American people and to reinforce a mixed image that people had coming out of the primaries.

And so Romney now has to change an impression rather than create one. Instead of saying, "Hey, I'm Mitt Romney, let me introduce myself," he let Barack Obama say, "Hey, this is Mitt Romney let me introduce you to him."

One of things that I recall at the beginning of campaign in the spring was the number of battleground states. Is it just me, or is that number dwindling? Genuinely, how many battleground states are there now?

The number of battleground states stays the same – the difference is that President Obama appears to be leading in most of them by varying amounts. And in some of them, by enough that you wonder can Romney come back and win?

President Obama has a lead of five points in Ohio. That's a big problem for Mitt Romney. It's very hard for him to win without Ohio. Virginia was very tight. President Obama now appears to be ahead there too. It's very hard to see how President Obama loses if he wins Ohio and Virginia. Florida, to me, appears a bit tighter.

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What has happened in those states and made it difficult for Mitt Romney to get his message through?

It varies from state to state. In Ohio, I think the President has benefited – perhaps even more than Michigan – from his plan to save the auto industry, because a lot of the small parts and plant manufacturers that make parts are in Ohio. Without that bailout they would all be gone. Things would be much worse in Ohio. Ohio also has lower unemployment.

On the other hand, I think you see a lot of this campaign – particularly on the Democratic side – is directed towards women. The reason for that, in part, is because women make up a disproportionate share of the undecided voters – about 60 per cent.

There are a lot of women who may be more fiscally conservative but socially liberal who might be open to Romney's "government has gotten too big" message and are concerned about spending but are turned off by conservatism on social issues, particularly abortion and same sex marriage.

Give me a sense of how much the presidential debates could be a game-changer in this presidential cycle?

They always have the potential to be, but the truth is usually they're not.

Mitt Romney is going to have to try and change the dynamic and so he's going to have to be on the attack. They're both very good debaters but part of what they are going to be doing is avoiding making anything that seems like a mistake.

I do wonder if Mitt Romney is going to repeatedly go after President Obama's record – that he hasn't delivered and he's been a disappointment, which might force President Obama to fight back a bit harder. We'll have to see.

At this point, your standard debate where they both look reasonably good doesn't cut it for Mitt Romney because he's behind.

And yet Mitt Romney has more practice in the debate format given how many debates he did during the GOP primaries – more than a dozen?

These are both really intelligent smart guys. Barack Obama is a Harvard Law Review editor, lawyer. This is a guy who knows how to make an argument if he wants to.

I think Mitt Romney sometimes likes to present himself as worse at this precisely because he then lowers his expectations. Newt Gingrich attacked him very viciously in one debate and scored some points, and then Newt tried to say, "Oh you can't nominate him because he won't win debates." And then Mitt Romney cleaned his clock in those future debates and was pretty effective at taking down his opponents.

No one was talking about foreign policy until the incidents in Libya, Cairo – and the wider protests. What is your take on foreign policy as the wild card in this race?

Ultimately, while the media criticized Mitt Romney's rush to criticize the President, the President's approval rating on foreign policy appears to have dropped by 10 per cent, though he still leads Mitt Romney on that question.

A foreign policy crisis at this point might actually benefit the President because Americans always rally around the President during a crisis. You saw around 9/11, President Bush's approval ratings went north of 90 per cent – and that's an expression of support not so much for the person but for the country.

Professor David Lublin is with the American University in Washington DC and currently on a US Embassy-organized speaking tour in Canada. The Globe spoke to him in Toronto.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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