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Reverting to the Norm: The Race Narrows

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

With less than two weeks to go until the elections, the presidential race continues to revert to the norm, a development that can only worry the president and his top strategists.

States that historically have been competitive in presidential elections or tilted to the GOP are moving in that direction, even though just a month ago they were favoring Barack Obama.

Yes, it is still easier to see the president’s route to 270 electoral votes than it is to see Mitt Romney’s, but the momentum in this race is now all with the challenger. No sensible person ought to be confident that he or she knows who will win.

No matter who emerges victorious next month, the first presidential debate of 2012 is now certain to go down in history as the same kind of game changer that the 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter was.

After spending the summer defining and discrediting Romney in key states and nationally, the Obama campaign now finds itself facing an opponent who, in just 90 minutes, erased much of the image that David Axelrod and David Plouffe created in a series of negative ads over the summer.

Romney’s new image and positioning in the race — moderate, reasonable and focused on problem-solving — make him a far more acceptable alternative than he once was, and that has made it easier for voters to focus their attention during the final month of the campaign on the president and his record, which remains mixed.

Obama’s better performances during the second and third debates did not change the fact that the first debate fundamentally altered voters’ opinions of the challenger.

Many of the reactions to the third debate by serious journalists and Democratic cheerleaders totally missed the point. (But Dana Milbank’s clever and on-target column in the Washington Post about real-time tweets during the debate is a must-read.)

Liberals and Democrats saw what they wanted to see Monday night, a classic danger for anyone trying to evaluate the debate’s effect on voters.

“Romney looked pained and rambling through most of the debate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Romney sweat like that, literally or figuratively,” Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote in proclaiming the president the clear winner.

“President Obama won the foreign policy debate, cleanly and decisively, on both style and substance. It was as clear a victory as Mitt Romney’s in the first debate,” Time magazine’s Joe Klein wrote.

Romney “didn’t have a single creative or elegantly stated foreign policy thought and, indeed, seemed foolish at times,” Klein asserted, adding that “Obama didn’t have a single weak or unconvincing moment.”

But mainstream reporters also seemed off the mark in evaluating the two candidates’ performances.

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