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U.S. election in the hands of the undecided

Democrats are unanimous. Barack Obama got his groove back in the second presidential debate, going after Republican nominee Mitt Romney in every way he would not in the first one. Two weeks ago, Democrats were in the dumps. Now, they are pumped.

The result is that the enthusiasm edge Republicans held over Democrats after the first debate was all but erased after Tuesday's Obama-Romney rematch. Both parties can now count on respective bases that are equally stoked heading into the campaign's final sprint.

But the ultimate arbiters in this election – the small sliver of uncommitted voters – are largely unmoved by the left hooks and rightward jabs that inspire all the boxing metaphors in debate coverage. They want specifics, and short of that, a clearer sense of where each candidate aims to take the country and how he plans to get there.

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Neither candidate has been sufficiently forthcoming in that regard. It takes a leap of faith to buy into Mr. Romney's budget math. He has systematically refused to detail which deductions he would eliminate in order to cut tax rates without increasing the deficit.

Likewise, Mr. Obama has been strangely vague about his second-term agenda. And instead of offering specifics now, he seems intent on spending the next 19 days blaming Mr. Romney for failing to come clean with voters before they mark their ballot.

"When a politician tells you he's going to wait until after the election to explain a plan to you, they don't have a pleasant surprise in store for you," Mr. Obama told college students at a rally on Wednesday in Iowa. "Mitt Romney's trying to sell you a sketchy deal … You don't want to invest in that sketchy deal."

But will the fear factor be enough to win Mr. Obama a second term?

Though 37 per cent of uncommitted viewers surveyed online for CBS News thought Mr. Obama won Tuesday's debate, compared to 33 per cent who chose Mr. Romney, almost two-thirds came away thinking the Republican candidate would do a better job on the economy.

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

If Mr. Obama has not laid out an agenda for the next four years, it is perhaps because he does not believe reiterating his unfulfilled promises on immigration reform, climate change and deficit reduction would seem very credible at this point. He does pledge (as he did in 2008) to raise taxes on the rich, but that is not an agenda so much as a Democratic talking point. It would be a baby step toward fixing the country's fiscal woes.

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Indeed, unlike Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama has avoided promising to negotiate the kind of comprehensive budget deal, including Medicare and Social Security reform, that would put the country on a sustainable fiscal track. It is anyone's guess whether he would be more committed to reaching one in a second term. He arguably had more to gain by coming to such a deal last year, even if it required forgoing outright tax increases, since it would have deprived Mr. Romney of one of his more compelling campaign arguments.

"I can tell you that if you were to elect President Obama, you know what you're going to get. You're going to get a repeat of the last four years," Mr. Romney said on Tuesday. "I will get us on track to a balanced budget. The President hasn't. I will. I'll make sure we can reform Medicare and Social Security to preserve them for coming generations. The President said he would. He didn't."

For undecided voters, a budget fix may be more urgent than promoting "wind and solar and long-lasting batteries," as Mr. Obama pledged to do at his Wednesday rally.

Mr. Obama plays a long game. His education policies and subsidies for green energy, advanced manufacturing and high-speed rail will not produce short-term results. Their impact – good, bad or marginal – can only be known decades from now.

Regardless, such policies are no substitute for the budget makeover the country needs.

Yet, on Wednesday, Mr. Obama was still talking up his investments in "long-lasting batteries" the day after the bankruptcy filing of a once-promising lithium-ion battery manufacturer – A123 Systems – that got a $249-million (U.S.) grant under his stimulus program.

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For voters yet to make up their mind, could that be what does it for them?

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More


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