Chasing the Needles

I’m writing this from a very, very blue state. So blue that six weeks ago it was so safely in Obama’s column that no one, not even the most optimistic and dreamy-eyed Republican partisan, could have spun with a straight face. Today? A tie. A tie where all the polling velocity is with Romney, and GOP enthusiasm has popped 13% in three weeks. It’s like that everywhere, except for California, New York and a few bijoux liberal enclaves.

Which is why Barack Obama’s campaign hangs in the balance tonight at the Hofstra debate.

Going into Denver, the need for Romney to win was almost existential. For our friends in the media, it was articulated in variations of this snide little view: “Well, all Romney needs to do is completely dominate the most brilliant President and most accomplished orator of our generation and totally redefine the race.”

We know how that rodeo ended.

Romney has much to gain tonight, but the President has an enormous amount to lose. Romney doesn’t have to score another knockout. Barack Obama does, just to stay in the game.

The political aftershocks of Obama’s disastrous performance in Denver were reinforced – particularly with swing state voters and the shrinking number of undecideds – by Vice President Biden’s manic, unhinged debate-as-performance-art performance last week. The drumbeat of tightening polls is the background music for their increasingly alarmed base. Team Obama can feel it all slipping out from the narrow parameters of their plan.

When pilots “chase the needles,” they over-correct their aircraft in an attempts to get on the glideslope for landing. It leads to larger and larger over-corrections and excursions from the flight path, sometimes dangerously so. Obama is well-off the glideslope right now (hello, Big Bird) and is chasing the needles, desperately trying to stabilize his campaign. An instructor pilot once told me, “When you’re over-correcting, call missed approach, clean up the aircraft and go around.”

The President doesn’t have that option tonight. There is no go-around.

Obama’s supporters are looking for him to recapture the magic that set their legs tingling and hearts singing in 2008. They didn’t see it in Denver, and they desperately need it tonight. Anything less than a command performance by Barack Obama will likely send Andrew Sullivan and the like off their fainting couches and on to the nearest ledge. The wailing and lamentations of the commentariat in the event of a Romney victory will be deafening. An Obama win tonight just moves the ball back to the 50-yard line, which is still an awful lot better for Romney than where it was before the Denver debate.

Unfortunately for him, Obama and his team know that.

Obama will, in a tricky town hall format, need to deliver perfectly calibrated, highly negative attacks on Romney and his record. This is like Walter White’s product to the Democratic base. And they’re jonesing bad for a big bump of that hard-left attack meth. That kind of attack is, however, poison to moderate voters, women, and the remaining undecideds. Obama can easily slip from being a feisty competitor to a nasty, carping loser if he’s not extraordinarily careful.

Since Denver, Obama has been the recipient a lot of terribly contradictory advice, almost all of it well-meaning, and almost all of it wrong. “Go hard negative on 47%.” Don’t touch 47%, you’ll look small.” “Be harder.” “Be softer.” “Be more inspirational.” “Be more practical.” “Outline a crisp, clear vision for the future.” “Don’t talk vision, we already oversold it.”

Too hot, and he enters the Biden state of the unhinged and unpresidential. Too cool, and it’s Denver part deux and the Democratic base sinks even deeper into their funk.

Even in 2008, the town hall win by Obama needs to be seen in the context of McCain’s disastrously poor performance. This is not Obama’s strong suit. One thing Bill Clinton can’t confer on Obama is his personal ability to connect. Clinton’s weird need to have a personal connection runs in two directions: he wants to absorb all that pain and anxiety and uncertainty, and he wants to leave his marks with the sense they were doing him a favor by sharing.

For Obama, it’s never been about that. It’s a one-way process, feeding on adoration and attention, basking in the hot glow of his supporters’ worship. He’ll hear the sob story, but unlike Clinton, he’ll bridge to either his usual, trite class warfare or to a government handout as the solution. It will feel contrived, because it is.

Romney, for all the jokes about his stiffness, is a man who has operated in an intensely interpersonal business climate for his entire life and has demonstrated his ability to use the town hall format effectively.

But hey, Barack…no pressure, ok?