The peril to Romney’s candidacy of being seen through the lens of desperation can’t be overstated. The paramount strategic objective of any campaign is to maintain control of the candidate’s public image—and if the media filter begins to view his every move through a dark or unflattering prism, things can quickly spin out of control, to a point where nothing he says or does is taken at face value. “Romney is in a very bad place,” says another senior Republican strategist. “He’s got the Republican intelligentsia second-guessing him, publicly and privately. The party base has never trusted him and thinks that everything bad it ever thought about him is being borne out now. And he’s got the media believing that he can’t win. He’s right on the edge of a self-fulfilling downward spiral.”
Whether Romney can resist that spiral in the two weeks between now and the first presidential debate is an open question—but there’s no doubt that the pressure on him to win that debate decisively is now almost overwhelming. “If he doesn’t, you’ll see the whole thing start to unravel pretty quickly, à la Dole in 1996,” says a third GOP strategist, arguing that Romney’s fund-raising will dry up and the expected flood of money from conservative super-pacs will be reduced to a trickle.
None of which is to say that Romney is alone in confronting serious challenges owing to these events. For Obama, you could argue, the circumstances are equally demanding. In almost every way, running as an incumbent confers marked advantages: the power and stature of the office, the ability to demonstrate governing capacity rather than just stipulate it, the infrastructure that comes with the White House, including the use of that great big plane.
But when crises are roiling halfway around the globe, those advantages are severely tempered. No longer is full-time, single-minded campaigning an option—nor should it be. Yet so far Obama has managed to strike a subtle balance on the hustings: suitably somber, resolute, and almost Bushian in his combination of tough talk (“I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished”), patriotic swagger, and partisan contrast with his opponent.
If circumstances in the Middle East worsen, however, Obama’s performance will be measured under the magnifying glass of 24/7 campaign coverage. And those circumstances will inject an uncomfortable degree of unpredictability into an environment that he and his leaving-nothing-to-chance advisers would dearly prefer to be as stable as possible—and put on the line one of the areas of policy, national security and foreign policy, in which his lead over Romney has always been yawningly wide.
Making matters all the dicier for Obama is the possibility that, beyond the embassy protests, he may also have to cope with a related headache induced by Israel and Iran—and in particular by Bibi Netanyahu. In the days before the Libya tragedy, Netanyahu launched a broadside plainly aimed at the U.S. over what he sees as its spinelessness in working with Israel to halt the Iranian nuclear program by any means necessary. To some, the broadside had all the appearances of Netanyahu trying not just to place a thumb on the scale in America’s election but of slamming his whole hand on it. And there is no paucity of evidence to suggest Netanyahu would much prefer Romney, whom he has known for years, to win; his warm embrace of the Republican nominee when he visited Israel in July, which was tantamount to an endorsement, was remarkable in its brazenness and nearly without precedent in the modern annals of presidential politics.
Still, there are signs that Netanyahu may simply be trying to exercise what leverage he has now because he knows it will soon be diminished. As a former American intelligence officer who met recently with top Likud officials put it to Politico, “They are grimly accepting the reality Mitt won’t win.”
Take out the adverb in that sentence and you have a pretty decent encapsulation of the emerging cross-partisan conventional wisdom here at home—one that Romney needs to do something fast to shatter, or it may harden into concrete.