From now until the third and final presidential debate, and quite probably even after that, President Obama and Mitt Romney will fight on the ground, over the airwaves, and in social media over the four Ls and four swing states.
Each of the Ls is a symbol of a larger issue. They are, in no particular order: Libya, Ledbetter, Lying, and Lame. The four swing states are Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada (more on them in minute).
1. Libya is about presidential leadership, accountability, the U.S. approach to perils and possibilities of the so-called Arab Spring and the gathering threat of what appears to be a reconstituted Qaida-inspired terror cells in North Africa. After the debate, Romney advisers and supporters conceded the governor was far from adroit when he confronted Obama. "We'll have to spend a couple of days unpacking Libya," chief Romney policy adviser Lanhee Chen admitted. But top Republicans say the continued scrutiny of what Obama said about the attacks--generically referring to "acts of terror" while for days characterizing it as an act of mob violence touched off by a Web video that insulted the Prophet Muhammad--will redound to Romney's favor. "The Libya thing is just a nightmare for Obama," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "You just can't bend the truth like that." Top Obama surrogates who said that Romney fumbled the issue are eager to revisit it in Monday's foreign-policy debate. "It gave him reason to be confrontational," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
2. Ledbetter is about the first law Obama signed, which actually dealt with the time available to litigate equal-pay disputes but has become a proxy for a bundle of issues (access to and subsides for contraception, abortion rights, fair treatment for women in the workplace, and education) that have historically commanded the attention of suburban women in close, all-other-things-being-equal elections. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., voted against passage of the bill and Romney opposed it when it was before Congress but would not repeal it now.
"Women's issues will be a huge driver in this election," said senior White House adviser and 2008 Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "And we intend to use issues raised in that debate against Romney." The Obama campaign wants to pounce on Romney's denial of trying to interfere with access to subsidized contraceptives by reminding voters he backed the so-called Blunt amendment that would have given employers broader authority to opt out of contraceptive coverage requirements. "Romney clearly does not support access to contraceptives in women's health care," said Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans call the charge laughable. "The Obama campaign would have you believe the governor wants to pull condoms off the shelves at Walmart," Chen said. "It's a ridiculous argument."
The GOP also argues late-deciding voters will make their choice based on the economy because it tips the scales lopsidedly against Obama. "When Romney leveled his indictment of President Obama on where we are, the president became meek and just hid away," Priebus said. "The No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy. It transcends everything--gender, race and religion."
3. Lying is what both campaigns say the others do, but it was a far more forceful component of Obama's Hofstra approach. What energized Democrats so much about Obama's performance was his aggressive criticism of Romney's current policies, his record as governor, and how he's tried to waffle on issues like tax cuts, immigration, and Wall Street reform since the primaries. Every Obama campaign aide or surrogate (I spoke to five) used the word "sketchy" to describe Romney's policies. O'Malley went further, calling Romney's explanation of his 5-point jobs plan vague and his tax-reform proposal "contemptible and laughable."
Romney advisers said that Obama fudged the facts on Libya, misstated the price tag of Romney's tax plan, and was misleading about energy production on federal lands. Moreover, Romney aides said the bigger problem for Obama--and one they predicted will stick in the craw of undecided voters--was the president's tendency to duck direct questions on high gasoline prices, the lack of beefed up security for U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya, and why he didn't keep a promise to submit a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first year in office. Romney advisers are already looking to cut attack TV ads on Obama's energy answers from the Hofstra debate.
4. Lame is the Obama economic record and whether it is his fault or former President George W. Bush's. For Romney's team, as it has been throughout the campaign, nothing matters more and no ground will be won or lost that doesn't tread over the terrain of economic satisfaction or dissatisfaction. "We intend to prosecute the president on his economic record," said Chen who, like the three other Romney aides or surrogates I spoke with, invoked the word "prosecute" to describe the coming economic debate. Romney advisers know polling data from the first two debates show Romney won in both contests on the question of who can better run the economy and split at Hofstra on who would most help the middle class. They believe these impressions will be determinative down the stretch. "The governor and Paul Ryan have talked to the nation three times now about plans and goals for the future," said Romney adviser Kevin Madden. "The president and Biden haven't at all. That will matter."
Obama advisers contend that the president's criticism of Romney's record at Hofstra stopped his momentum cold and that the economy will remain a threat to Obama. But they added that Romney's own weaknesses--contestable job-creation numbers linked to his 5-point jobs plan, lack of specifics on tax policy, and checkered jobs record in Massachusetts--will keep Obama narrowly ahead. "Romney just makes things up, and over time he's just not believable," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "I mean, I've never seen anything like it, and people won't stick with someone like that."
What also became clear after the dust began to settle from the rumble on Long Island was the electoral map has narrowed and Obama's team, while conceding nothing publicly, is circling the wagons around Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Plouffe said that Obama remains strong in all four states, but he would not discuss the specifics of internal polling or voter-contact analytics, saying only that Obama has "significant leads" in all four places.
It is uncharacteristic of Team Obama to concede any terrain, but Plouffe offered no such assurances about Obama's position in North Carolina, Virginia, or Florida. Romney advisers have seen big gains in all three states and now consider wins likely, although not guaranteed, in all three. They are similarly upbeat about prospects in Colorado but not confident enough to predict victory. That Plouffe left Colorado off his list of states where Obama's leading and can withstand a Romney surge might be telling.
According to RealClearPolitics, Obama currently has 201 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. But that doesn't give Obama electoral votes from Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), or Wisconsin (10). Of these three, Romney advisers believe that only one, Wisconsin, is even theoretically winnable. Obama advisers believe they will win all three. That would put Obama at 247 electoral votes. If Obama wins Ohio (18), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), and New Hampshire (4) he would claim 281 electoral votes. That means he could afford to lose New Hampshire and Nevada and still eke out a razor-thin victory of 271 electoral votes.
Romney, according to RCP, has 191 electoral votes. If you add Florida (29), North Carolina (15), and Virginia (13), that brings his total to 248 electoral votes. Add Colorado (9) --which neither campaign is prepared to claim or concede--and Romney's total rises to 257 electoral votes. If Romney wins Ohio (18) in addition to these states, he would have 275 electoral votes. If Romney loses Ohio, he would need to win Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire to reach 273 electoral votes. There is a scenario where Romney could lose Ohio and New Hampshire but win Iowa and Nevada and one electoral vote from the 2nd Congressional District in Maine (the state allocates electoral votes by district vote) and capture the bare minimum of 270 electoral votes.
"I really don't see a path for Romney without Ohio," Plouffe said. "And we feel very good about where we are in Ohio with voter contacts, messaging, and early voting. Our early voting is ahead of where we were in 2008."
"God bless them in the Obama campaign," said RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer. "We are gaining in Ohio, and they can say all they want about early vote. We are way, way ahead in early voting in Ohio compared to 2008, and what matters are residual voters after the early vote. We believe we will have enough to win."
The three debates so far have given partisans in both parties plenty of ammunition, but Obama's Hofstra rebound was more important. Top Democrats feared another listless performance would have doomed his campaign. Those fears were decisively erased. "The really important part of the debate was, and will be, getting those who were already going to support Obama to actually get out and vote. The debate helped because the Democratic base is reenergized."
With both sides seeing and smelling victory, it's clear after the verbally contentious and physically confrontational debate at Hofstra University the electoral map has narrowed and the issue matrix is being sifted. From now on, the four Ls are likely to dominate, and Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire will see the lion's share of candidate visits, door-to-door voter contacts and still more media saturation.
CORRECTED: An earlier version of this story did not include an additional electoral vote scenario for Romney.