Mitt Romney Is Running Out of Time

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

Pulling up in the press bus onto the grounds of Shady Brook Farm in Morrisville, Pennsylvania on Sunday night, you couldn't help but be struck by the size and sweep of the crowd awaiting Mitt Romney. At least 25,000 strong — 30K-plus if you believed the campaign — they'd been waiting all day in the cold, gathered on a big wide open field near the New Jersey border in Bucks County, listening to the Marshall Tucker Band, amped up and full of holler.

But when Romney took to the podium, positioned amid thousands of his devotees all around him, he didn't seem jazzed or pumped or juiced; instead, he came across as strangely subdued, low of voice and out of puff. Meandering through his closing argument, Romney offered a wan version of his latest attack on his rival: “In his closing argument, this is last week, President Obama asked his supporters to vote for revenge. For revenge. Instead, I ask the American people to vote for love of country." He wandered into a strange, non-sequiturish couplet, suggesting that the audience “reach across the street to that neighbor with the other guy’s yard sign, and we’ll reach across the aisle in Washington to people of good faith in the other party." At the end, he said, "We're so very, very close" — a line that at his previous event in Cleveland he'd delivered with great verve, summoning a wave of applause. This time it came out as nearly a whisper, and was met with mumness.

Maybe it was the frigid night air and the biting wind that sucked the energy out of Romney. Maybe it was the fact that, due to a travel delay, he was running late and had to rush — two things Romney is known to hate. Maybe he was steaming over the fact that Chris Christie, according to the Huffington Post's Jon Ward, had rebuffed the campaign's invitation to appear at the rally, adding insult to the injury that the New Jersey governor inflicted last week on the Romney campaign with his great big bear hug of President Obama. Or maybe, just maybe, the explanation was simpler: Here was a candidate who is losing and who knows it, who is watching as his long-held dream is slipping through his fingers.

Romney's foray into Pennsylvania was designed to suggest otherwise. It was meant to project confidence, to scream that the Republican campaign was making a bold and late attempt to expand the map, to win a state that no GOP nominee has won since 1988. Romney's people pointed gamely to some fresh polling suggesting that the Keystone State was moving in their direction: an Allentown Morning Call/Muhlenberg College survey released Sunday showing Obama just three points ahead of Romney, 49–46; a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll that made the margin four. Bolstering the impression that Team Romney was actually playing in the state, that this was not just a head fake, were substantial ad buys by Boston and various Republican super-PACs — along with the announcement earlier today that Romney would make a final Election Day stop in Pittsburgh.

The brute reality, however, is that Pennsylvania — long fool's gold for desperate Republicans at the end of losing campaigns — is almost certainly out of reach for Romney. Up in Madison, Wisconsin this morning, Obama White House senior adviser and numbers guru David Plouffe argued to me that, given the Democratic registration advantage in the state, for the Republican to win there would require him to score fully 66 percent of independents on Election Day. So why all the money being spent there? The answer is: Why not? Both the Romney campaign and the GOP super-PACs are flush with cash, and given the dearth of advertising inventory in the genuine battleground states, there really is nowhere else (that makes even the slightest sense) to spend it.

The Obama campaign's confidence extends well beyond Pennsylvania. In conversations with an array of top advisers this morning, a clear picture emerged that Chicago believes it has Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire more or less in the bag; that it feels nearly as certain of carrying Ohio; and that Obama is just a tad ahead in Virginia. As for Colorado and Florida, Team Obama believes they are both too close to call, but thinks they could well win both; they are forthrightly pessimistic only about North Carolina among the nine battlegrounds. This could all just be spin, of course — or they could simply be proven wrong. But having known and reported on these people for a solid six years now, my sense of their tone and body language is that their self-assurance is for real.

Romney's people, by contrast, are straining to project a similar degree of optimism. They point to the size of the crowds that Romney is drawing, and indeed they are impressive — not just in Morrisville but all across the country. They point to the strength of the candidate's closing argument — and indeed it is by a wide margin the best speech of his campaign, and one which, crucially, he demonstrates a great deal of comfort giving. Consider the way it closes:

He’s offering excuses, I’ve got a plan. He’s hoping we’ll settle. I can’t wait for us to get started. Americans don’t settle. We build, we aspire, we listen to that voice inside that says, “We can do better.” A better job; a better life for our kids; a bigger, better country. That better life is out there, waiting for us. Our destiny is in your hands. This is much more than our moment. It is America’s moment of renewal and purpose and optimism. We have journeyed far and wide in this great campaign for America’s future. And now we are almost home. One final push will get us there. We have known many long days and short nights and now we are close. The door to a brighter future is there, open, waiting for us. I need your vote, I need your help. Walk with me, walk together. Let us start anew.

This is strong stuff, and when he is rolling, Romney delivers it well — though it must be said that, even on his best day, the Republican still pales as a speechifier versus his Democratic opponent on a bad one. But Romney and his people are not fools, let alone innumerate ones. They can read the polling as clearly as anyone. And while I've no doubt they sincerely believe that much of the public survey work is flawed in its assumptions of what the electorate that turns out will look like, the sheer weight of the numbers now and the direction of their movement is clear and quite convincing. Can Romney still win? Yes, he can — but the gradation of the uphill path he must tread is getting steeper by the hour.

More than a few Republicans are already blaming Sandy for the defeat that Romney is likely to suffer — but this is the purest bullshit, for the Republican's post-Denver momentum had already stalled out well before the hurricane hit. What's true, however, is that two or three weeks ago, Team Romney was fully convinced, and not entirely without reason, that victory was within their grasp. The reality now, though, is that this is no longer true. That Romney and his people have not yet completely wrapped their heads and hearts around this is unsurprising: In politics, as in life, the recognition of deep loss comes slowly and with no small degree of anguish before it takes hold fully. But, eventually, take hold it does. And if loss is to be Romney's fate, the question for him will be how he handles it, for the ferocity of the reaction of many of his supporters — those who despise Obama with a passion so raw and burning it is hard to comprehend — will be breathtaking, and perhaps not a little scary.