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Hurricane Puts Race in Holding Pattern

“I fell for the whole ‘change’ thing. I got on the ‘change’ train. But there wasn’t any change.”

-- Wesley Allen, a welder from Ripley, Ohio talking to the Cincinnati Enquirer for a story about the latest Ohio newspaper poll that showed a 49 percent to 49 percent tie in between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in the Buckeye State.

Just one week to go before we know how more than 130 million Americans have voted in the longest, nastiest, most expensive election in American history.

And it is rather fitting, then, that Hurricane Sandy, for all of the damage and destruction she has wrought, has provided the nation a moment to pause and reconsider the race.

The candidates are largely bound for these 48 hours to stand silent and, more important, the political press is obliged to stop hyperventilating over the latest gaffe or examining the consequence of the most recent ad buy among Hispanic single mothers in Nevada or blue-collar dads in Wisconsin.

And when this pause is over, we will be so close to the election that it will be too late for much more than covering the final campaign blitzes by President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Obama is hoping to add just enough persuadable moderates to his Democratic base, while Romney is trying to stretch out an advantage in the middle. If he falls short, it will be, as was the case for John Kerry in 2004, by a relatively small margin in Ohio. If he succeeds in getting over the top in Ohio, though, things start to get interesting.

At a moment when voters feel very much that the future of our country is in doubt and that the stakes of this election are higher than most of the 56 contests over the past 223 years, this pause is a useful thing. Voters have a moment to peer over the cliff and contemplate life in a country that re-elects the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson or one that chooses, for the first time, a Republican businessman.

When reporters and the electorate re-engage in this race, one of two things looks most likely to happen: Either the president will have found his toehold just above the waterline of a rising Republican tide, or the momentum for Romney will continue carrying him to a decisive win.
Power Play has long held that the two most likely scenarios for this race are either for the president to cling to a narrow win or for Romney to capture a clear victory. And with a week to go, this political note is selfishly glad to see that those are the two scenarios coming into view.

If the Democrats are right, the president’s ground game and expanded early voting will prove decisive in narrow races across the rust belt, especially Ohio.

As an incumbent Democrat, Obama has had a high floor of support, having never fallen below the 45 percent mark in the Real Clear Politics average in more than a year and a half. But that also means he has a low ceiling. With an unhappy electorate, a perpetually weak economy and laden with unpopular policies, there was never much of a chance for Obama to experience the kind of ratifying re-election that his predecessors Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan enjoyed.

Obama’s best-case scenario has always been something like what George W. Bush experienced in which a narrow victory in Ohio and a handful of other states blocked his challenger’s path to victory.

Romney, meanwhile, had to grind out a grueling primary race and work hard to consolidate his party. But consolidate it he did, thanks in large part to the president, who is much reviled on the right and who also helped anneal the bickering GOP by launching harsh, early attacks against its presumptive nominee.

That consolidation helped Romney set a new floor. Remember that John McCain, running a confused and confusing campaign in the worst electoral climate for Republicans since Watergate, still managed to get 47 percent of the vote in 2008.

But unlike the president, Romney had the chance to introduce himself to Americans. Obama, who has been talking seemingly non-stop since 2007 and is always part of the news cycle, surrendered his chance to reintroduce himself to his constituents when he opted to reject the advice of many Democrats and tack to the center following the midterm elections that were so catastrophic for his party.

Romney, despite the long primary and having been the governor of a major state, was little known to most Americans. The president assumed that with the advantage of time and money, he could be the one to introduce Romney to voters, casting him as a bad man who lacked the character and qualifications for the presidency.

But Romney survived the onslaught and today stands dead even with the president when it comes to the percentage of voters who hold favorable views of the candidates. The bad news for the president is that the favorability points he sacrificed in running such a negative campaign were not worth the price. As he said himself, Obama went “overboard” and lost one of his key advantages.

That brings us to the second scenario.

Democrats have been dismissing weeks of polling that shows Romney ahead among likely voters, especially the Gallup surveys that have consistently put Romney ahead by more than the polls’ margins of error.

But Romney having survived the onslaught on his character and proven himself plenty plausible in a trio of debates, the Republican nominee has a chance to win with far more swing voters than the president.

Obama is hoping to add just enough persuadable moderates to his Democratic base, while Romney is trying to stretch out an advantage in the middle. If he falls short, it will be, as was the case for John Kerry in 2004, by a relatively small margin in Ohio. If he succeeds in getting over the top in Ohio, though, things start to get interesting.

But if Gallup is right, it’s hard to imagine, that the result wouldn’t be a sweeping electoral vote victory. If Republican intensity combined with favorable views of Romney in the middle, especially among the more affluent suburbanites who were so key to Obama’s 2008 victory, really does have Romney in the lead, this could be not quite a Republican wave, but certainly a very high tide.

Nerves will be tight in both Boston and Chicago today and tomorrow as they wait out the storm-imposed pause in effective polling and news coverage. That’s because when the race restarts on Wednesday or Thursday, we will know which of the two scenarios looks more likely.

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And Now, A Word From Charles

“You freeze [the race] to some extent.  You leave five days instead of eight days.  I'm not sure it's decisive.  But clearly the polls tell us absent the hurricane, it looks like Romney is the slow and steady tortoise in the race and he would be passing Obama.  I think he probably still does.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

 

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30am ET  at  http:live.foxnews.com.
 

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.