KENT, Ohio -- As I was leaving an Obama campaign rally here -- roaring, enthusiastic, packed with gleeful liberals and bright-eyed college kids -- a red pickup truck festooned with "NOBAMA" signs was circling the perimeter, the man at the wheel yelling unintelligible slogans. He passed by a heavyset woman in a fuzzy pink sweater who was sitting on the rain-dampened sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. "Your friend's losing, dude!" she called out.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Mitt Romney currently appears to be losing the presidential election, and his problems are especially acute in Ohio, the state no Republican has ever won the presidency without. A New York Times poll on Wednesday put Romney a shocking 10 points behind Obama. Even the most optimistic Democrats have a hard time believing the president, who won Ohio by less than 5 points in 2008, could win the state by 10 this time around; the most optimistic Republicans, for their part, do not believe any polls at all these days, since, in a highly suspicious coincidence, they are nearly unanimous in showing Romney behind.
Seeing the candidates campaign in the state back-to-back, as I did, neatly illustrated the divergent mood between the two camps -- one flailing, one on a confident roll. The Obama campaign is clicking on all cylinders, consistent, smoothly choreographed, and slickly produced; Romney's appearances are a jumble, his tone of voice pleading to the point of desperation, his speech constantly improvised from a Frankenstinian array of spare messaging parts, never quite gelling into a focused whole. Obama's crowds are a Bieber-like fan-throng; Romney's are only passionately angry. A visitor from another planet who didn't speak a word of any human language could tell which one was up and which was down.
In the Columbus suburb of Westerville, Romney began his day in a high-school gymnasium bedecked with a confounding array of slogans. A whirling "debt clock" raced upward from 16 trillion; video monitors read "Victory in Ohio"; a bright-blue banner professed "We Need a Real Recovery"; and a powder-blue banner stated "We Can't Afford Four More Years." The governor, John Kasich, welcomed him to the stage with a whiplash-inducing mixed message: "Ohio's coming back! Our families are going back to work!" he said, extolling the state's fast-improving and better-than-average unemployment rate. And then, quickly turning dour: "But every day I have to face the headwinds from this president."
Romney's native-son celebrity endorser, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, then gave an excruciating 10-minute speech. Nicklaus, now 72 and a Florida resident, is nicknamed "The Golden Bear" after his Columbus-area high-school mascot, and the crowd held signs reading "The Golden Bear for Romney-Ryan." Romney told the crowd he believed Nicklaus to be "the greatest athlete of the 20th century," inviting some ridicule from the sports world, and gave a mostly lifeless 20-minute spiel in which he assured voters he would not lower their taxes. "By the way, don't be expecting a huge cut in taxes, because I'm also going to get rid of deductions and exemptions," he said.
Romney can't seem to stop stepping on his message. On Tuesday, he said President Obama hadn't raised anyone's taxes, which his campaign later clarified to mean that Romney believes the president has, in fact, raised taxes (which is true). Later on Wednesday, he pointed to his health care reform in Massachusetts as proof of his compassionate streak; Romney has never actually repudiated that law, but any positive mention of it tends to set conservatives' teeth on edge, and it's especially jarring when he has just given a speech bashing the not-dissimilar "Obamacare" as a treacherous threat to liberty.
Romney's struggles have brought on him a spate of conflicting advice from the sages of his party: He should be more aggressive, or less! He needs to be more specific, or less! He must look to the future, or to the past! But instead of picking some bold new direction and sticking to it, he seems to be frantically improvising. His campaign is constantly buzzing about a reboot that never actually occurs.
Obama radiated just the opposite -- calm, even cocky self-assurance -- in his appearance at Kent State University on Wednesday afternoon. Unlike Romney, Obama read his speech from teleprompters (cue the right-wing ridicule, though Romney has been known to use them frequently). The school's basketball arena was packed to the rafters, and the only text in the frame with Obama was a single word on a blue banner behind him: "FORWARD." "After seeing this crowd, I have to ask: What enthusiasm gap?" said Bryan Staul, the Kent State senior who introduced the president. (Meeting his idol for the first time backstage, Staul's jangling nerves over the introduction were soothed by the president's serene presence, he later told me. Obama told Staul to tuck in his shirt.)
Obama was loose and confident, his speech tracing a well-paced arc and never passing up a chance to take a whack at Romney. (While Romney still frequently reminds audiences that he doesn't hate the president, just thinks he's done a bad job, Obama has dropped the passage that used to remind his listeners that Romney is a good man with a nice family.) He alluded repeatedly to Romney's "47 percent" comments. "I've spent a lot of time in Ohio, and I don't meet a lot of victims," the president said. "I meet a lot of hardworking people." Later he cast Romney's recent tough talk on China as "like the fox standing up and saying, you know, we need to keep the chicken coop more secure." Naturally, after this bout of name-calling, Obama ended his speech with a high-minded appeal to national unity and transcending partisan division.
It's not over for Romney. Things can change in the next six weeks (though it should be noted that no presidential election ever has -- as The New Republic's Nate Cohn notes, "every candidate with a clear lead in the late September polls has won the popular vote ... since 1948.") Pride, for the Obama campaign, possibly goeth before a fall. The debates start next week.
But at the moment, the old Obama magic is just about back, and jubilation is the order of the day for Democrats in Ohio and everywhere else. Becky Gurnish, a 57-year-old retired Spanish teacher from a suburb of Akron, wasn't feeling quite so good about the election a few months ago. But now, "Obama's not making mistakes and Romney's making a ton of them," she told me. "I think the campaign is going well, and Romney's certainly helped. So thanks, Mitt!"