At left, President Obama takes the stage during a campaign rally at the University… (Getty Images / European…)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the conventions over, a stubbornly knotted presidential race now enters the final, crucial phase with clearer definition but little obvious breakout opportunity for either candidate, short of a decisive performance when they debate next month.
President Obama, Republican Mitt Romney and their strategists face an incontrovertible fact: Time is waning and the political map is shrinking. Friday's mixed jobs report — unemployment down slightly, but fewer jobs created than economists expected — won't change that.
There are fewer than 60 days left in the campaign and, barring some epic shift, fewer than 10 or so states that remain competitive. Obama and Romney hit two of them, Iowa and New Hampshire, on Friday, with plans for two others — a presidential bus ride this weekend across Florida and a Romney trip Saturday to a NASCAR event in Virginia. An Obama victory in either of the latter two states, or Ohio, would go a long way toward locking up the White House for a second term.
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The question to be decided between now and Nov. 6 can be boiled down simply: whether undecided and persuadable voters disappointed with Obama over the so-so economy will overcome their coolness toward Romney on the assumption he could do better.
"The race shouldn't be this close. Romney should be significantly ahead, given the state of the economy," said John Weaver, a Republican strategist watching from the sidelines. "The fact he's not speaks to his weakness as the nominee and the damage the party has done to itself with different demographic groups."
The back-to-back conventions were a chance for both candidates to shore up their political weaknesses and rally their respective bases.
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For former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, the storm-shortened gathering in Tampa, Fla., was about relatability, and in his acceptance speech he opened up in ways he rarely had before, discussing his Mormon faith and offering some glimpses beneath the ramrod surface. He welcomed testimonials not just from his wife — that has become standard convention fare — but from some of those he ministered to through church and helped in business.
A pageant of women and Latinos spoke from the stage — standouts included New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — in an attempt to belie any notion the party is hostile to either group.
In Charlotte, N.C., Obama cited slow but steady recovery from the economic mess he inherited and pleaded for patience and, if not exactly a second chance, an extension of the one voters granted him in 2008. He framed the election as more than an up-or-down referendum on the past 31/2 years, casting it instead as a choice between two very different sets of values and beliefs.
That is something heard in just about every election, but in this case it's true.
Taking the party platforms and using abortion as just one example, the two sides are at far distant poles. Republicans adopted language that forbids abortion in every instance, including cases of rape, incest and a threat to a woman's life. (Romney personally favors those exceptions; his running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, does not.) Democrats struck the accommodating language they included in previous platforms — saying abortion should be safe, legal and rare — and advocated taxpayer funding for the procedure for poor women.
Those positions, which appeal to the true believers of both parties, are out of step with the majority of voters who have more moderate views. Each side, however, wants to fire the passions of the faithful, believing the election could be decided by a large turnout of their most trusted and reliable voters.
More broadly, the candidates and those filling their convention stages offered starkly different views of the proper role of government.
Romney and the Republicans celebrated individualism, suggesting all that is needed is opportunity and personal enterprise to achieve great things. Translated to policy, that means less government, lower taxes, fewer regulations and more personal choice, like the chance to use a government-funded voucher to shop for Medicare coverage.
Obama and the Democrats spoke of community and collective effort, supporting an expansive role for government helping those in times of need, whether a single mom, a sick granddad or the failing U.S. auto industry.
The difference goes beyond mere rhetoric. Republicans want to dismantle the sweeping healthcare plan passed under Obama. Democrats want to raise taxes on incomes over $250,000 a year. Republicans want a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Democrats want a pathway to citizenship for some who came to the country illegally.
All of those issues and more will presumably be discussed in the series of face-to-face debates that begins Oct. 3.