In his third debate with President Obama, Mitt Romney dialed up "cool and cautious" on his mood meter. And that tells you a great deal about where this presidential race stands with two weeks to go.
Romney had to know the president would be coming after him in Boca Raton, Fla., but he decided to avoid the aggressive and even angry notes he had struck in the first two debates. He had achieved what he could with this approach in the initial clash in Denver on Oct. 3, when he seemed the more decisive and strong-willed candidate on stage. Its usefulness was visibly waning in the town-hall format in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 16.
In Boca, Romney & Co. sensed a moment to ease off a bit and make a more positive impression. Their clear targets were women, undecided independents and others who might have been turned off by the contentious, uncivil tone of the earlier confrontations.
And Romney got the new persona across, at least in part. In one of the instant polls done after the event, the pollsters and political scientists at YouGov found debate watchers thought Obama had won the evening but that Obama had also been the more negative candidate.
All this emphasizes once again the critical importance of timing.
In the first debate, Obama may have won the likability contest but booted the rest of the test. In the final debate, he could not risk having this happen again. That led to the role reversal that had nearly as many people shaking their heads: the president playing the restless attacker, finding fault with his rival even when the two agreed on policy basics, while Romney smiled a lot and went out of his way to be level-headed, embracing agreement with the president wherever possible.
This retracting of the Romney horns was too obvious to be spontaneous. That is not the way the GOP nominee and his team operate. They have decided that recent polls in their favor are now the defining factor in the contest. So their tactics for the third debate went from "go after him" to "don't blow it."
In football terms, why throw the ball deep when you're ahead?
This implies that the Republicans are placing a hefty bet on their analysis of the race, and on the rightness of their overall late-surge strategy. They decided that by winning the first debate and looking like a leader, Romney had altered the dynamics of the fall campaign for good in a single night.
They also decided that the electorate had reached and passed a tipping point with respect to their judgment of the challenger. So, having already secured the respect of enough swing voters to win, he needed only to avoid alienating too many of them with his personality.
That is the Romney theory of the case. His campaign has decided that inconsistency is simply not going to cost him the presidency. After all, his Republican primary rivals ripped him mercilessly for shifting issue positions depending on the moment and the audience at hand. That did not prevent his nomination, nor has it kept him from consolidating the Republican vote in the fall campaign. You have to look hard to find conservatives who plan to defect or sit this one out.
As a late-inning strategy, this may seem too cautious for a challenger who has only this month pulled even with the incumbent president. But it reflects both confidence in the polling trend and a deeper sense of assurance that this is not a year in which the usual incumbent advantage applies.
We should remember too that Romney has been at this presidential game since at least the middle of the last decade, when he decided not to seek a second term as governor of Massachusetts. Some would say he had the White House on his mind even earlier, when he challenged Edward Kennedy for his Senate seat in 1994. Or earlier still, perhaps as a young man at Cranbrook Prep.
Having spent so much of his adult life making this moment possible, the prudent investment banker does not want to take any unnecessary risks now.