- David Gergen: Final debate enabled President Obama to shore up his chances
- He says the race remains too close to call, but Obama has an edge
- President helped his chances in final debate, but Romney passed a test too
- Gergen: We'll find out if Obama campaign's apparent ground strength will come through
"So, who's going to win?" Traveling the country, that's the first question that comes my way, often from complete strangers. The truth is that no one knows -- that's a verdict only voters can render, and rightly so.
"Well," came a follow-up question Tuesday morning, "what does your gut tell you? The debates are over. Where are we two weeks out?"
My gut will feel a lot more confident after three or four more days when we see how the polls settle out from Monday night's final debate, but here is my hunch the morning after.
Coming off clear, back-to-back victories in the final two debates, President Obama has now shored up his campaign, and -- given what appears to be a superior ground game -- is again an odds-on favorite to win. But Mitt Romney has also accomplished a great deal in these debates and is poised for a possible surprise. Overall, I would put the chances at about 53% for Obama, 47% for Romney.
Obama has proven once more that he is better when behind, in the clutch, looking for a three-point basket. He was too complacent going into the first debate and almost threw away the election. Judging from e-mails and social media, many of his supporters felt he had let them down personally, threatening their ability to get health insurance or other needed benefits. By reasserting himself in the final debates, he restored their faith and energy for the homestretch.
Over the course of the final debates, Obama also cut Romney down to more human size. In their town hall encounter, Obama pummeled him with charges of lying, misleading voters, and pretending to be a moderate.
Monday night, Obama charged repeatedly that Romney had been all over the map on foreign policy. While Romney delivered some effective counterpunches, he no longer looked the way he did in the first debate -- like a man who went into a phone booth and emerged as Superman. By the end of the third night, he looked tired and more like Clark Kent.
Obama in both of the last debates also did a good job in appealing to key parts of his constituency that he will need: minorities, women and youth. It is no accident that he has advanced many policies over the past four years tailored to their interests -- and now he is trying to bring them home. Monday night he seemed particularly focused on women, and my sense is that he helped himself with those still wavering.
Coming into a 14-day scramble, Obama can now rely upon an additional weapon in his arsenal: a strong ground game. Because it drove away any potential challengers in the Democratic primaries, his Chicago team not only got the jump on the GOP in advertising this past summer, but also constructed what appears to be a superior field organization.
In the pivotal state of Ohio, for example, the Obama campaign has three times as many offices, often captained by experienced young people. By contrast, a major Republican figure in the state, throwing up his hands, told me that the Romney field team looked like a high school civics class. The Romney team heartily disagrees, of course; we'll just have to wait and see.
The Romney team isn't ready to concede an inch, nor should it. In fact, some conservatives believe that voters are continuing to drift away from Obama toward Romney -- and they see Obama's combativeness Monday night as the stance of a man who knows he is behind. (Obama's continuing condescension may also have hurt him.) There is no question that Romney gained more from the debates overall than did Obama: Despite the losses in two and three, debate No. 1 transformed the campaign into a horse race and it remains there still.
It is especially notable that after the second debate -- which focused mostly on domestic issues -- the same registered voters who told CNN that Obama had won also said they thought Romney would do a better job on the economy and deficits. After Monday night's finale, the same voters who told CNN that Obama had won also concluded that both men were qualified to be commander in chief. Romney's likability has even passed Obama's in some national polls.
Many commentators thought Romney should have attacked more aggressively Monday night; in fact, his calculated strategy to be more deliberative and above the fray seemed shrewd -- while he lost on debate points, he was able to avoid a warmonger label while also passing the commander in chief test.
In short, a candidate who had been painted by Obama ads as disqualified for the job has now firmly established his credentials and is ahead on the central issues of the campaign: jobs, deficits and growth.
These are the makings of a candidate who can come from behind in key battleground states. Straw in the wind: Over the course of the debate Monday night, the online prediction market Intrade showed that the odds in favor of Obama moved up only a point, to 61%; Tuesday morning, they had dropped to 59%. Before the debates started, Intrade odds in favor of Obama stood at 74%.
Buckle up -- it could be a wild ride to the finish.