US race shapes up as fight to wire

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Barack Obama, a basketball fan, likened his battle with Mitt Romney to the final quarter of a tight game, with his side “up a few points” against an opponent “coming on strong” and playing “a little dirty”.

With both campaigns locked in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom in their claims and counterclaims about the evils of their rival’s policies, Mr Romney would doubtless reject any notion he is hitting below the belt.

But just over 70 days from polling day, Mr Obama’s state-of-the-race assessment at a late night New York fundraiser this week is otherwise one thing the two campaigns agree on, that the election will go down to the wire.

The often wild swings that characterise US elections, with candidates gaining and shedding up to ten points in support in short periods, are absent in 2012.

“The thing that distinguishes this race isn’t how volatile it is, but how stable it is,” said a senior Obama campaign official.

Romney campaign advisers have long said their strategy was to keep pace with Mr Obama until their re-launching of the candidate at the Republican convention, which opens in Tampa, Florida, on Monday.

But in a deeply polarised country, the traditional convention bounce may no longer be there, for either candidate. “There are very few undecided voters left,” said Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, in Washington.

Like the hedgehog that knows only one thing in the essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the Romney campaign has attempted to turn the race solely into a referendum on the economy, the Republican candidate’s strength.

Mr Obama’s campaign is more like Mr Berlin’s fox, which knows many things, as he tries to push the debate off the economy to fights involving the multiple constituencies he needs to rouse and piece together to win.

So far, the Obama strategy seems to have successfully kept Mr Romney at bay, despite the near-daily drip of flat economic news and a stubbornly high jobless rate.

Instead of focusing on the economy, Mr Romney’s campaign has been dragged into damaging debates on matters such as abortion, immigration and his career in private equity, all political cul-de-sacs for the Republicans.

At a briefing for reporters in Washington, Mr Obama’s campaign divided the electorate into the constituencies where the president held strong leads over Mr Romney, among educated women, Hispanics and African-Americans.

“Whatever is tailored to us getting 50.1 per cent in the battleground states, we are in a position to do,” said a second senior campaign official.

The Obama camp dismisses the idea of a pro-Romney surge after the convention.

“We’ve heard a lot from the Romney campaign about this sort of ‘Field of Dreams’ scenario, that this is 1980 and undecided voters are going to flock to him after his Reaganesque performances in the debates,” said an Obama campaign official.

But that is unlikely, the official said, because “undecided voters have an increasingly negative view” of Mr Romney.

The Romney campaign maintains it is well positioned going into the convention and says its attacks on Mr Obama for funding his health care reform with savings in Medicare, the medical programme for seniors, are working.

“It is a winning issue for us,” said Stuart Stephens, Mr Romney’s chief strategist, pointing out that Mr Obama had failed to run any paid advertisement in favour of his health reforms.

“The one thing in campaigns you cannot spin is where you go and what advertising you run,” Mr Stephens said.

Mr Romney, once he has been formally nominated as the Republican candidate, will also immediately unlock a cash hoard of $165m for spending on the general election.

The campaign is planning an advertising blitz, to leverage the spectacular re-branding of Mr Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman, planned for Tampa.

Millions of dollars have been spent on image consultants and made-for-television sets aimed at softening Mr Romney’s flinty business image.

Mr Romney also penned an opinion piece in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, defending his role in building companies and creating jobs at Bain Capital, a record that has been under sustained attack by the Obama campaign for months.

But the relaunch and rebranding of candidate Romney could come too late in the cycle to reverse the damage done to his standing with voters.

Mr Cook says a few months ago, he would have tipped Mr Romney to win but he is now changing his mind, largely because of what he says has been the ineptitude of the Republicans in allowing their candidates to be defined negatively by his opponents.

The Chicago-based Obama campaign, by contrast, he says, may not have a strong policy platform platform but they are tactically brilliant.

“You might dislike how they are running the country,” he said, “but they are very, very good at running campaigns.”

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