CHARLOTTE -- Sixty days to go.
The Democratic National Convention closed Thursday with some final jabs at Republican Mitt Romney, a week after the Republican National Convention concluded with some final jabs at President Obama. The confetti has fallen and the delegates are heading home as the two-month sprint to the election begins today.
Since Romney emerged as the likely GOP nominee last spring, neither candidate has been able to gain a clear advantage in a remarkably stable race. Despite an avalanche of ads, major news developments and the occasional gaffe, the two have been locked for months in a margin-of-error contest. In the Gallup daily poll posted Thursday, Obama was at 47%, Romney at 46%.
In the next two months, what could shake that and shape the outcome on Nov. 6?
The back-to-back conventions were the biggest remaining opportunity for Obama and Romney to energize supporters and make their case to the shrinking number of voters who are undecided or only loosely committed to a candidate. Next week, surveys nationwide and in the swing states will signal how well they addressed their core problems: For Obama, that voters like him but aren't convinced he's done a good enough job on the economy. For Romney, that voters respect his business acumen but aren't sure they trust him to protect their interests.
"The convention will do us a world of good in creating excitement around the country," senior White House adviser David Plouffe predicted in an interview. Still, he called the race "pretty locked in" and added, "There is a small number of really persuadable voters."
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said the GOP convention succeeded in introducing Romney in a more favorable light to voters who didn't know much about him. Now, he said, in an interview, "I think you're going to come out of the conventions pretty much the way you went into them: an extra tight race with a lot of states still in play."
For the election's final weeks, hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ads already have been booked and get-out-the-vote operations forged by the campaigns, the parties, organized labor and advocacy groups. There's always the possibility of the unexpected that could tilt the race one way or the other. Four years ago, the financial crisis exploded in September, grabbing the headlines and intensifying voters' desire for a change.
Even so, at the core of the fall campaign are some basics: Four crucial debates. Three key states. Two important issues. And one demographic group that is the top target for both sides.
The countdown to what's next:
All states are not created equal. The USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Swing States includes a dozen battlegrounds, 12 states not safely claimed by either side. Advertising has been concentrated in nine of those states. And at the heart of this election are just three of them on which the outcome may well turn:
•Florida, the state that swung the 2000 presidential election.
•Ohio, which every winning Republican candidate has carried.
•And Virginia, historically a GOP stronghold but one where the state's changing demographics have made it too close to call.
The Obama campaign argues that Romney probably has to win all three to amass the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Oval Office. (Under that scenario, Romney also would need to win back Republican-leaning Indiana and North Carolina, plus pick up one additional state.)
The Romney camp argues the GOP has other paths to a victory. The pick of Ryan has put Wisconsin more in play, for instance, and Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire are being hotly contested. Still, Ohio and Florida are part of almost every calculation that gets Romney a victory in the Electoral College, and Virginia figures in most of them.
The amount of money already spent in TV ads by the campaigns and political action committees in the three states has smashed old records: more than $70 million in Ohio and Florida and close to $50 million in Virginia. They also are the states likely to warrant the most campaign visits by the candidates and their top surrogates.
Asked on CBS Thursday morning where former president Bill Clinton would be deployed by the Obama campaign, strategist David Axelrod had a ready response: Florida and Ohio.
While Democrats were meeting in Charlotte, Romney was practicing at a retreat in Vermont for the trio of presidential debates that open Oct. 3 in Denver. The president and his challenger will meet three times in three weeks for what might be the only unscripted moments of the rest of the campaign.
Some political scientists question whether the debates sway voters or simply confirm their inclinations. "They see things through their preference lenses," typically judging their favored candidate to be the winner, says Christopher Wlezien of Temple University, co-author of a book being published next month, The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (and Do Not) Matter.
The debates' impact might be particularly hard to find in 2012 given an electorate that is so polarized, Wlezien says.
Veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, a top aide to 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, disagrees.
"Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama would agree, either, or they wouldn't be spending so much time to get ready for the debates," he says.
Democrat Al Gore's performance in the 2000 debates, including exaggerated sighing in the first one, cost him dearly in that disputed election, Shrum says. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan's reassuring mien in his only debate against President Carter won over undecided voters and fueled his easy victory.
Newhouse calls the debates one of a few "pause points" in the election, when voters "stop and consider or reconsider the candidates." (The choice of a running mate and the conventions are two other such moments.) "The debates will provide voters with an opportunity to sit back and reconsider their choices, and undecided voters will begin to solidify their decisions," he says.
Vice President Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan meet in Danville, Ky., on Oct. 11, in a fourth debate and the only encounter between them. Their debate - a generational contrast between the 69-year-old incumbent and his 42-year-old challenger - is likely to spotlight Ryan's controversial budget plan, which Romney has endorsed.
What issues matter most in this election? Jobs, jobs, jobs - and doing the job.
An analysis of the words used in convention speeches reported by The New York Times showed the most common word in Tampa was, naturally, "Romney;" the second was "work." Similarly, the most common word in Charlotte was "Obama;" the second was "work." The word "jobs" also figured in the top five at both conventions.
The nation's stubbornly high unemployment rate and the broader array of economic concerns have led the list of voter concerns throughout Obama's tenure. A second related issue: which candidate has the proposals and the skills to actually deliver on their promises to help create more jobs.
"Job creation is important to every American out there," says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.
"It's jobs and the economy," Newhouse agrees. "The other issue is leadership or competence. Voters understand the economy is the top issues, but they want to know which candidate is really going to fix it."
Some encouraging news came Thursday. The number of people filing for unemployment benefits last week fell, and the payroll company ADP said private companies added 201,000 jobs last month. Action by the European Central Bank helped push the Standard & Poor's stock index up to its highest level since January 2008.
This morning, less than 10 hours after Obama was to exit the stage in Charlotte, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will issue its monthly report on job creation and the unemployment rate for August - perhaps reinforcing or undercutting the president's argument that the economy is slowly improving.
The Friday before Election Day, the October report arrives.
1 demographic group
The speakers featured on stage at the two conventions made it clear who the most prized targeted voter was in the national audience: women.
Ann Romney testified about the high school sweetheart she married, and when he spoke two days later Mitt Romney recalled with emotion memories of his mother. Michelle Obama headlined the opening night of the Democratic convention, and keynoter Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, paid homage to his mother, wife and daughter as the cameras showed them in the VIP box. Republican governors Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico got prime spots last week in Tampa; the 12 Democratic female senators were arrayed across the stage Wednesday in Charlotte.
"There are swing voters in every demographic group in every state," Plouffe says. "But for that group of women - suburban women, independent women - their share of the persuasion universe is much higher" than their proportion of the overall electorate.
Female voters are not a monolith, of course, and not all of them are up for grabs. African-American women solidly support Obama; senior women tend to back Romney. But white women in the middle, many of them married and with children, are the No. 1 group of swing voters being sought by both campaigns.
Many of them supported Obama in 2008 but switched to Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm elections because of dismay over economic woes from job losses to home foreclosures.
"They didn't feel anything to reassure them about what was going to happen to their families," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says, warning: "They better hear that from us now. They don't want to know macro-economic policy. They want to know what's going to show up for their families and their kitchen table."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway says Democrats' focus on access to contraception and abortion rights misses the main message. "The key is a combination of 2008 (optimism, vision, hope) and 2010 (solvency, specifics, solutions)," she says. "Chemistry (with the candidates) or even biology may matter to female voters, but the most important subject to them this year is math."