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Someone keep Mitt Romney out of Boca Raton. Last time he was in town, it was all 47% and I'd be President if I were Mexican. Tonight? Oy. You know how you can tell Barack Obama peeled the bark off of his debating opponent this evening? Click on RealClearPolitics.com. It's burying the snap polls about the debate. (What debate? There was a debate?) Or look around the Internet -- Kudlow tweeted that Romney was on Valium, and Hannity is angry that Libya was not a topic this evening. This was Denver in reverse -- Romney assuming the role of the front-runner who didn't want to disagree, and who accepted harsh criticisms without rebutting them. Just as Romney won the CBS poll of undecided voters by 24 in Denver, President Obama won that poll tonight by 30. It is hard to see after tonight how President Obama does not win re-election.
Coming into tonight, President Obama was leading narrowly by virtue of razor-thin advantages across Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Iowa. His lead is thin because Governor Romney had made inroads from Denver among white independent voters, and working class female voters in particular. Romney got there in Denver by a positive bearing, and a polite but consistent attack against an adversary who let him do it. Judging from the polls, Denver conferred upon Romney an air of competency that convinced some middle-of-the-roaders that he was a man with managerial aptitude. Tonight, President Obama's relentless unpacking of Romney's flip-flops (Afghanistan, Iran), stern schooling of him on basics (we have these things called aircraft carriers; bayonets and horses, anyone; no, we don't ask Pakistan for permission to get bin Laden; the 80s are calling, they want their foreign policy back), and firmer command of China and Romney's own record on the auto bailout, stripped away some of the plausibility that Romney seized so adeptly on October 3. Simply put, Romney was more competent and promising during the first debate. Yet Obama was more competent and commanding during the latter two.
Will this matter? Absolutely. Look at the Washington Post poll from earlier today. The percentage of voters available left to persuade is small. But the snap polls have shown Obama winning two debates in a row, and the last one more decisively. There is no remaining event in the campaign that gives a ready opportunity for either side to pivot. The dynamic is roughly locked in for Election Day, with minor shifts looming huge. Obama needs to win Ohio. He has led in almost every recent poll there, and his vote-share is close to 50. There is nothing in this debate that could give Mitt Romney a closing edge, and there are things in it that make him seem risky ($7 trillion in spending), lacking command of facts (Syria and Iran don't share a border, in case you have travel plans, you might want to make a note of that), and most of all less competent, looking on like a deer in headlights while taking a deserved scolding from the President.
Additionally, Romney opened up a new line of attack. Remember the movie Say Anything? So does Mitt. He told the President it was a mistake to set a date certain to leave Afghanistan -- but now he's jumped in with both feet. It was dizzying hearing Romney adopt Obamaism on Syria, Iran, drones, Afghanistan. Given that Romney is behind in Ohio right now by something like 14-8 with 22% of votes already cast, how is this meek me-too-ism going to help him get every last conservative to the polls in Ohio? The same thing goes in Iowa. Romney needs his base to turn out on Election Day in overdrive, and as a final motivation to them, he submitted meekly to a factual schooling by a President he largely supported. Obama's campaign can attack the flip-flops, and Romney's base will not draw strength or motivation from his meekness, fumbling, or ignoring Libya tonight.
Senator Kerry had it right in his mid-debate tweet -- Obama sank Romney's battleship. Romney had made great inroads among available independents, who were preponderantly white swing voters, in Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Ohio. He needed every bit of that extraordinary progress to allow him to come to rough parity with the President. Romney came from 6 down to about even, and was performing near the upper end of his potential performance, given the size of the gains he made among women voters, and white middle class voters. Sound familiar? John Kerry knows how that feels. He came from 6 down to about even after a crushing debate win over George W. Bush. The late deciders didn't break toward that challenger, but drifted back to a steady Commander-in-Chief, and stayed the course. 2004 broke out again tonight. Look for a replay 15 days hence. Obama will win the popular vote by Bush's 2004 margin, and by reclaiming Virginia, will win the electoral vote more comfortably.