Those of you who arose at 2am yesterday, as I did, in the hope that the final debate in Florida would clarify the trajectory of this race for the White House: the sleep deprivation was not in vain. What it made crystal clear was that the outcome of this election is as clear as mud, and not just any old mud. The mud viewed through frosted glass by Mr Magoo, the Romneian plutocrat of the cartoon world, on the day he fired Worcestershire, his butler, for mislaying his spectacles.
With 13 days to the vote, the confusion was nicely reflected through the fairground mirrors of the apparently contra-intuitive fighting stance each candidate took. Obama, the odds-on favourite, displayed the aggression of someone convinced he was losing. Romney, a 2-1 underdog at best, adopted the cling-on-and-avoid-the-sucker-punch tactic of the boxer husbanding a points lead to the bell.
Obama won this round comfortably – on substance, style and optics, and in every post-debate poll – but he will be judged loser if, as predicted, the national polling remains deadlocked. A transparently outclassed Romney did enough not to scare the horses with his Reaganesque baritone and unthreatening blandness.
Romney was vague, glib, facile, vacuous and generally useless, but if the 47 per cent remarks he made elsewhere in Florida didn't disqualify him, that will count for nothing. Having campaigned as the beakiest hawk in the Neocon aviary (his advisers, among other George W Bush beauties, include the dementedly bellicose John Bolton), he shook the Etch A Sketch again. What settled on the plastic screen this time was the loviest of doves, cooing that America cannot kill its way out of trouble. Seconds later, he cleaved to Obama's drones policy, admittedly, but far from being repelled by the perpetual shape-shifting of this most shameless political grifter, America now rates its Uncle Mittens rather more likeable, the Lord have mercy, than Obama.
Yesterday's closest thing to a zinger came when Obama ridiculed Romney for ruing the reduction in naval vessels on the grounds that the military also has fewer horses and bayonets than in 1916. It was a cute put-down, but in this battle there is no cavalry thoroughbred (let alone a Frankel with the turbo thrusters to storm clear). This is a brutal, attritional 1916 infantry crawl through the mud, bayonets and all, for the incremental gains in Ohio that will determine whether the Democratic donkey is led by the Republican elephant at the finish.
By any standards, this has been a Medusa election and, God willing, it will be Obama winning ugly on 6 November. Of all the indicators, the most reassuring for surviving Obamaniacs is the 70 per cent chance given to him, at the time of writing, by Nate Silver's finely calibrated poll-analysis software. For all that, gut instinct suggests that you as usefully flip a coin. The only thing more opaque today than what Romney believes about anything is that ominously misted-up electoral crystal ball.Reuse content