FISHERSVILLE, Va. — The presidential race enters its final month enlivened by two events with the potential to reshape the contest or perhaps negate each other. Soon after Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance came Friday’s encouraging economic news, not a minute too soon for President Barack Obama.
Strategists say the race is tightening, which was largely expected even before Obama’s flat appearance on the debate stage Wednesday night, when his Republican challenger had arguably the best 90 minutes of his candidacy thus far.
Republican volunteers and strategists in the nine most competitive states are encouraged as never before, saying Romney is squarely back in a contest that was threatening to slip away.
Thirty-six hours later after the candidates’ first face-to-face meeting, however, Obama crossed a huge psychological barrier. The government reported that unemployment fell to 7.8 percent in September, down from 8.1 percent. It was the first time since the opening days of Obama’s presidency in 2009 that the rate dipped below 8 percent.
Now, with one month left until the Nov. 6 election and millions of people already voting, the question is whether Romney can spin his 90 minutes of debate gold into a path toward a four-year presidency.
The trick for Romney is to translate an often wonky, hard-to-follow debate, viewed by an estimated 67.2 million people, into the type of on-the-ground actions and momentum that eluded him during summertime stumbles over the London Olympics, Libya and the 47 percent of Americans who don’t owe federal income taxes.
Strategists in both parties say Romney is likely to gain in polls. But many question whether he can close the gaps that Obama seems to have opened in Ohio and elsewhere.
Presidential debates “are not as important as they used to be,” largely because voters have so many other sources of information and opinion, said Paul Shumaker, a Republican strategist in North Carolina, one of the most contested states. “Romney performed beyond expectations,” Shumaker said, but it may be hard to sustain the lift.
“The problem going into the next debate” on Oct. 16, he said, is that Romney “has raised the bar very high for himself.”
Will Weatherford, a Republican who soon will be speaker of the Florida House, was more optimistic after the Denver debate.
“My initial reaction is, it’s a game-changer,” Weatherford said. “The mystique of President Obama is gone.”
Former Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said the first of this year’s three debates may have saved Romney’s campaign.
“Before the debate, he was very close to losing this election,” Wadhams said. A sliver of undecided voters wants to oppose Obama, he said, but until Wednesday, Romney had not closed the deal. “I think he’s back in the game,” Wadhams said.
Obama seized onto Friday’s jobs report like a tired swimmer grabbing a raft, using it to deflect chatter about his disappointing debate performance. “We are moving forward again,” he told a Virginia crowd.
Romney said 7.8 percent unemployment “is not what a real recovery looks like.” Obama accused him of trying “to try to talk down the economy to score a few political points.”
The Republican used the debate afterglow to take a second stab at softening the damage done from secretly recorded remarks in which he said 47 percent of Americans consider themselves victims dependent on government aid.
“I said something that’s just completely wrong,” Romney told Fox News. “I care about 100 percent, and that’s been demonstrated throughout my life.”
If nothing else, Romney’s solid debate performance netted him more time to make his case to undecided voters.
“Hope was restored in 90 minutes,” said Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
Many activists wish it had come sooner. Obama’s experienced voter-turnout operation already is marching supporters by the thousands to early polling sites in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio, the most fiercely contested state of all.
If the election were today, Obama probably would carry Ohio, making Romney’s path to the 270 needed electoral votes extremely narrow. Public and internal polls show Obama ahead by 5 to 8 percentage points.
Romney’s campaign on Friday began airing an ad, “Ohio Jobs,” in which Romney speaks directly to the camera. Democrats hope Friday’s jobs report will make the ad sound off-message to many Ohioans.
In Virginia, a traditionally Republican state until Obama won it four years ago, the race is tighter, although the president is seen with the advantage. After the debate, Romney went straight to Virginia, where he and running mate Paul Ryan headlined a rally in the state’s conservative west.
There was anecdotal evidence in some states that Romney’s debate job was bringing in new donations and volunteers.
“I’ve been in Daytona, Flagler County and St. John’s County, and all over, people are asking for signs, asking for bumper stickers, some of them are even asking where they can send money,” said Florida state Sen. John Thrasher, a former state GOP chairman. “The energy level is fantastic.”
In Nevada, where Romney has not led in any publicly released poll, new volunteers showed up at GOP offices.
Gustavo Guadamud, 31, had planned to vote for Romney, but after watching the debate he decided it was time to do more.
“A lot of people thought that he doesn’t have what it takes,” Guadamud said. “But every time President Obama was replying, he looked him right in the eye.”
Guadamud, a web designer, had intended to leave a small donation at the Romney office and pick up a bumper sticker. He ended up phoning registered voters for two hours.
Babington reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Nevada and Brendan Farrington in Florida contributed to this report.
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