Obama-Romney: It's not over yet

Things certainly seem to be breaking President Barack Obama's way of late. A slew of new polls last week showed gains for him in crucial battleground states, most notably Ohio, the one state no Republican has ever won the presidency without. Mr. Obama won't repeat his feat of taking Indiana, and North Carolina may be a stretch, but polls in Florida, Virginia, Nevada and elsewhere suggest the possibility that this election might not even be that close.

But before Obama supporters start measuring the White House for second-term drapes, they may want to consider the strong possibility that the race is far from over. There's enough time left and enough volatility in this race and in the world for Mitt Romney to eke out a victory on Nov. 6. Here are a few things that could scramble this race:

•A foreign crisis. There are several simmering conflicts around the world that could pull in the United States in the coming weeks, including the Syrian civil war and the territorial dispute between China and Japan over a small group of islands. But tops on the list of possible game-changers is an Israeli attack on Iran. That's unlikely to happen before the election; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have tried to draw a "red line" around Iran at the United Nations on Thursday, but he also made it clear that an attack would not be launched against that nation's nuclear facilities until next spring at the earliest. Still, the prospect of the United States getting drawn into an armed conflict with Iran is clearly on the rise.

Foreign policy has generally been a strength for Mr. Obama, and Mr. Romney's efforts to score points in this arena (from his gaffe-prone foreign tour to his quick criticism of the president even as news broke about the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens) have fallen flat. But the president's decision not to meet one-on-one with world leaders at the United Nations last week and continued questions about the circumstances surrounding the attack on our Libyan consulate could give Mr. Romney openings if a crisis erupts.

•An economic stall. A key factor in Mr. Obama's recent success in the polls has been his ability to chip away Mr. Romney's advantage on whom voters trust more to manage the economy. Growth remains weak and unemployment remains high, but voters have historically been more interested in the trajectory of the economy than its actual status on Election Day.

Given the stops and starts of the economic recovery, it's certainly possible for that perception to change in the next month. Continued trouble in the Eurozone could quickly upend American markets — and given last week's anti-austerity protests in Greece, it's clear the political and economic situation there has not stabilized. And there will be two U.S. jobs reports between now and the election — one of which will come out the Friday before voters head to the polls. The August report was weak, showing just 96,000 jobs created. If the numbers dip further (certainly a possibility, given the uncertainty over the mandatory budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect at the end of the year), voters may be more receptive to Mr. Romney's economic message, particularly if he provides more specifics about his plans.

•The debates. Presidential debates don't usually determine the course of an election, though there have been some notable exceptions, such as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Still, Mr. Romney proved an adept debater during the Republican primaries, and he has been deeply enmeshed in preparations for next month's meetings with President Obama. Mr. Romney has been sparring with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, an experienced surrogate who also played the role of Mr. Obama during Sen. John McCain's 2008 debate preparations. (Mr. Obama, needing someone to play a somewhat stiff Massachusetts politician who has historically been a bit squishy on the issues, has been practicing with Sen. John Kerry.) Mr. Romney is perhaps best advised not to go for a knockout blow — that can backfire — but instead to take advantage of the elevation a challenger receives by standing on the same stage with the incumbent.

•The open microphone. Mr. Romney's campaign was upended by the secretly recorded "47 percent" remarks, and Mr. Obama is just as capable of being caught saying something that rubs much of the nation the wrong way. There was the 2008 description of rural Pennsylvanians as "bitter" and "clinging" to their guns; the exchange with Samuel Wurzelbacher ("Joe the plumber") about redistribution of wealth; and more recently, the "you didn't build that" gaffe in Virginia.

Add to these the inevitable uncertainties of Election Day, particularly voter turnout and the possible influence of untested voter ID laws — even weather can be a factor in a close race. The incumbent's position in the polls may actually hurt his chances if over-confident supporters choose to stay home, while undecided voters traditionally break heavily for the challenger. The bottom line is that five weeks is an eternity in politics; the unexpected could greatly influence voter perspective; and in an ideologically divided nation, the outcome is unlikely to be certain until all the ballots are counted.

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