Political Mann: Obama fights Romney momentum as debate season ends

Who has momentum in presidential race?
Who has momentum in presidential race?

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Story highlights

  • Barack Obama accuses Republican challenger of having "Romnesia"
  • Mitt Romney won first debate then adopted conciliatory, more centrist tone
  • Romney emerges from debate season having tightened state and national polls

President Barack Obama is accusing Republican Mitt Romney of changing his promises and policies so thoroughly that he's dubs it "Romnesia," but the U.S. election campaign has itself changed dramatically and Obama is scrambling to recover.

"Attacking me is not an agenda," Romney said this week, during the third and final presidential debate ahead of the November 6 vote.

The most dramatic change in the race is the crucial one: with less than two weeks to go, Romney is leading or tied with Obama in national public opinion polls, after having trailed him for months.

Map: World weighs in on U.S. election

A closer look reveals a more complicated picture, but it isn't entirely comforting to Obama either. America's presidential election results are actually tallied state-by-state, rather than nationally. As a result, individual states and the votes they are allotted in America's quirky presidential Electoral College are really the focus of the contest.

This week the polls put Obama well ahead in Ohio, perhaps the most important state that is still undecided. But CNN's own estimates suggest that Romney is slightly ahead in North Carolina and well ahead in Indiana and Missouri, three others among the handful of "swing" states.

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Video: Mann explains "swing" states

Mindful of how much is still in motion, Obama is pouring his campaign a whole lot of caffeine with what he called "a 48-hour fly-around campaign-marathon extravaganza."

By CNN's estimate, he was slated to travel roughly 10,000 kilometers in two days this week, on a coast-to-coast odyssey aboard Air Force One stopping in eight states.

There has also been a change on Romney's side and it's apparently taken the president by surprise.

The series of gaffes that punctuated his campaign for weeks has apparently ended, and the Republican candidate has been widely seen as articulate and convincing in addressing the largest audiences he's ever had -- the millions of television viewers who tuned in for his three debates with Obama.

After his confident and commanding posture in the first debate and the dramatic gains in public opinion polls that followed, Romney shifted into a much more comforting and conciliatory figure in this week's encounter with Obama.

He said he agreed with the president on several issues and described his own policies in ways that seem calculated to widen their appeal beyond traditional Republican voters. Romney denied any plans, for example, to cut taxes for the wealthy or risk involving the U.S. military in conflicts overseas, even in nations such as Syria and Iran, where he has long accused the president of indecisiveness and inaction.

Obama found himself criticizing policies that Romney says he never proposed.

"He is changing up so much, back-tracking and sidestepping," Obama said. "We have got to name this condition he is going through. I think it is called Romnesia."

Since he first started running for president ahead of the 2008 election, Obama himself has changed policies or abandoned promises as well, on subjects ranging from closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay to pressing for wide-ranging reform of America's immigration laws. (He hasn't done either).

Politicians tend to behave in predictable ways and shifting position is often one of them.

The thing that Romney really has changed, above all, is the likelihood that Obama will be re-elected.

President Obama has less than two weeks to work on changing that.