The Marathon Sprint

America has now gotten a good intimate look at both presidential candidates, but the battle for the White House continues. The Republican Convention achieved its goal of humanizing Mitt Romney and resetting his public image; personal testaments from his wife Ann and former members of his church painted a picture of a generous and friendly man far different than Obama’s portrayal of him as a ruthless corporate raider.

The Democratic Convention achieved its goal of firing up the sleepy liberal base and making the point-by-point case for a second Obama term, with speeches from Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton receiving especially high marks for their ability to connect with average Americans.

However, the race remains what it has been for months – a dead heat. With two months left until Election Day, there are at least three main contingencies that have the ability to shake up this bitter race.

The first is the three presidential debates and single vice presidential debate, all in October. To prepare to debate the current President, who is considered a superb debater, Romney is engaging in mock debates with Ohio Senator Rob Portman (a former veepstakes favorite) sitting in for Obama. Portman is also a top Romney surrogate and is considered to be one of the GOP’s intellectual heavyweights (and is perhaps one of the only Republicans who is considered to be more boring than Romney). Likewise, President Obama is brushing up on his debate skills with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry playing the role of Romney – Kerry was one of the former Governor’s constituents and, like Romney, he is considered more of a moderate within his party. With the race this close, undecided or unsure voters will be watching these debates to get a final feel for both candidates and the campaigns will be ready and eager to pounce on any slipups or poor performances.

The second is the continued development (or lack thereof) of the economic recovery. There are two remaining national jobs reports (September and October) left to be announced before the election, but unfortunately for the President, the August jobs report released last week was about as bad as it could get. A mere 96,000 jobs were added in the month, and while the unemployment rate dipped from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent, the drop was only due to 368,000 people giving up and leaving the labor force entirely (and thereby not being counted in the “standard” unemployment statistic). “Forward”, says President Obama? That’s not forward, that’s slipping backwards. 96,000 jobs a month is not even enough to keep up with the growth of the U.S. population; if the remaining two reports are anything like this one, the Romney campaign may simply have too much statistical fodder in the final weeks for the President to bear.

The third is an election classic: the October Surprise. In the last month before Election Day, something “big” and unpredictable usually happens that sends the campaigns into a flurry. It could be particularly dirty laundry, a new skeleton in a closet, or a major domestic or international event. Since Obama and Biden have been in office for four years now, nothing new is going to be dug up on them. The same goes for Romney and Ryan; Romney has effectively been running for President for six years now and Ryan is about as clean-cut as a Washington politician can be. No, if there is to be an October Surprise, it will likely be a serious international affair, and the one that is perhaps most on the mind of the President is an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

While it is highly egocentric for American politicians to have their elections be their primary concern with respect to the Israel-Iran issue, both sides of the aisle are definitely doing it and with good political reason. The question of whether (or when) Israel will strike Iran simply never goes away and the tension between the two countries has continued to ratchet up recently as the White House has been unable to provide a definitive answer as to whether the U.S. would assist with such an undertaking. With both candidates desperately competing for the Jewish and Christian vote, this issue is now more significant than ever.

Two months in political terms is both an eternity and an instant – there is plenty of time for new race-shaking developments and for attack ads to fly, but the fight to win over the independents (and their attention) is quickly running out of time.