Mitt Romney has the nation’s attention again.
Romney doesn’t have the race he wants, at least not yet. But he has his best opportunity yet to change the presidential race that had shown signs of slipping away from him, if he can build on his strong debate to make the argument he’s long sought to make against President Obama.
Romney’s strong debate set the stage for a comeback, though it did not do more than that. It did not trigger an exodus among Obama’s supporters, or convince undecided voters that the only choice is Romney, according to early rounds of polling in the wake of the debate.
This remains a very tight race with a slight advantage for Obama, particularly in the battleground states that will decide the election. But Romney has a shot now to change the fundamentals of the race.
Romney’s major foreign-policy speech Monday in Virginia will fill out the argument he’s making against the president. His indictment of the president’s leadership abroad dovetails with his domestic critique, and his team hopes it will help complete a presidential portrait at a time voters are making final decisions.
Then comes Thursday’s vice-presidential debate. The only face-to-face encounter between Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden figures to be electric, with Biden expected to get more aggressive to help turn stories away from Obama’s subpar performance.
Pressure will be on Ryan to deliver on his own expectations. The clamor for further policy details from the Romney-Ryan team fits perfectly with Ryan’s profile; Ryan has shown himself to be a more effective messenger on the economy and the role of the federal government than the man at the top of his ticket.
Republicans view last week’s debate as a potential pivot point. The Romney campaign hopes it provides momentum that establishes the “choice” the Obama campaign has actually sought from the start — though on Romney’s terms, not the president’s.
“The problem they have is that the debate’s performance on Wednesday evening was not a matter of style, it was a matter of substance,” senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said on ABC’s “This Week” today. “Gov. Romney laid out a plan for turning this economy around, getting things moving again. He had a fact-based critique of President Obama’s failed policies that the president was unable to respond to.”
Gallup’s daily tracking poll of the presidential race hasn’t shown much movement in the national numbers, with Obama maintaining a slight lead.
Yet the same poll offers a glimpse at Obama’s potential vulnerability. Before the debate, the president’s job approval rating was at a commanding 54 percent. In the wake of the debate, though, that figure dipped to 48 percent — under the 50 percent threshold that’s a trouble sign for an incumbent.
The upshot of Romney’s strong first debate is that he faces the biggest week of his campaign — for the second week in a row.
He’s hoping for some help this week, with Ryan’s shot at his own debate. But Romney will have to make his own case, and sustain it for 30 days — only two of which include presidential debates.