Visiting Denver last week I wondered about the place it will occupy in the Obama history books. Four years ago, it played host to a jubilant Democratic Convention that helped seal the deal for the soaring candidate of hope and change. (You recall those faux Greek columns.) Then this year it was the venue for the first presidential debate, an event that did not exactly rocket-boost the incumbent's re-election effort. It may rather have doomed it.
There is not much arguing about this, even if you buy the line peddled by some in the Obama camp that the rather generous lead the President had enjoyed over the summer was always going to dwindle around then, in part because of the inevitable fading of the glow created by this year's mostly successful Democratic convention in Charlotte. (The Republican gathering in Tampa the week before had been stultifying.) But as you sit at the breakfast table asking yourself how it has happened that in the space of a few short weeks Barack Obama has gone from being the man with golden electoral wings to a gasping moth in the shadow of Mitt Romney's rapidly approaching boot, inevitably your mind will track back to the Denver debate.
I was there, and I think we were about three minutes in when I turned to the reporter sitting next to me with a look on my face that exactly mirrored the one on his. "What the heck is going on here?"
If Mr Obama ends up losing, all kinds of explanations will be offered. Not talked about as much now as it was in 2008 is colour. But I have heard just as many racist hints and whispers about a black man in the White House as I did then.
"The only reason the Romney campaign has legs on it is because of how many people are specifically anti-Obama and who have been opposing him from day one," Wellington Webb, the former (black) mayor of Denver, told me. He didn't expand on what he meant by "specifically anti-Obama", but I think we know.
Mr Obama has been hobbled by a global economic malaise hurting growth in the US, and the blame is on him for sharply higher petrol prices even though that is not altogether fair. He should be feeling some relief that consumer confidence, GDP growth (at 2 per cent in the last quarter, the government said on Friday) and even the unemployment numbers have started to jog in the right direction in the final weeks before election day.
But all this is backdrop; you fashion your campaign accordingly. Above all you take stock of your opponent. What came into view in Denver was that in spite of the reputation of Mr Obama and his team – David Plouffe, David Axelrod, Jim Messina and Robert Gibbs – as campaign wizards, they might until that point have bungled everything. Finally there is the candidate himself. Is it possible we had him wrong all this time? And Mitt too?
First, Mitt. That look of consternation on my face was in fact first about him. I didn't recognise the Republican. Vanished was the bumbling candidate I had seen on the trail during the months before spouting platitudes and conservative bromides with all the conviction of an amber traffic light. For the first time, I thought: a young Ronald Reagan. He was on the ball, articulate and he evinced a sort of optimism. And my mind was briefly scrambled by most of what he was saying which seemed, well, Republican reasonable not Tea Party crazy.
There is fierce debate this weekend surrounding an article by Matt Bai in The New York Times where he claims that Bill Clinton, supposedly the best weapon of the Obama campaign, persuaded Plouffe et al back in the spring to switch from painting Mr Romney as a chameleon who shifts positions (abortion, immigration, tax) according to his audience and instead hammer home that he was above all the radical conservative he had largely presented himself as during the Republican primaries, and as a soulless plutocrat who, as head of Bain Capital, chewed up American companies and shipped jobs overseas while enriching himself and paying low taxes.
That worked fine until Denver when the viewers, all 70 million of them, said "wait a minute", this man ain't nearly so bad as the Democrats have been making out.
If Bai is right about Clinton's role then I would agree with his conclusion that it was a massive error. Shouldn't they (we) have seen Denver coming? After all it was Romney's top adviser Eric Fehrnstrom who said publicly in the spring that an Etch A Sketch moment would come. The primaries would transition into the general election and his candidate would redraw his political profile accordingly.
The remark triggered uproar. Now, I say "duh". No one ever said politics and cynicism don't sleep in the same bed. When it happened, voters were surprised thanks in part to the portrait that the Democrats had theretofore painted of Romney. Speaking of beds, the Democrats had made one for themselves. Even Mr Obama seemed shocked.
Since Denver, Mr Obama has reverted to plan A, telling crowds everywhere, especially last week, that Mr Romney is a shape-shifter who is not be trusted. He has a cute line about his opponent suffering from "Stage 3 Romnesia" about his past positions. While the crowds at his rallies roar with approval, there is little evidence the gag is likely to impress the tiny sliver of voters who are still undecided. In fact, what we have now is Obama trying to take both approaches at once: Mr Romney is a conservative and he is a shape-shifter. It's confusing.
It's also very negative. There is no doubt that during all three debates, Mr Romney spent plenty of time firing his own pellets at the President for allegedly failing to generate jobs, crushing the middle class, favouring government intervention over private enterprise, going on an "apology tour" overseas and so forth. Yet, I am guessing that an impression has formed that of the two candidates he is the one with a vision of optimism about the future.
Mr Obama, by contrast, has seemed unable or even unwilling to offer a sweeping pitch about what he would do over the next few years. It is fine to attack Romney and blame a slow recovery on the mess left by George W Bush, which he does every minute of the day. But what happened to the hope and change? Is there none left?
Most Americans are feeling pretty battered and what they need most is the feel-good "morning in America" rhetoric, even if it's partly phony, that Mr Obama delivered so convincingly four years ago. They don't want recrimination.
And what about the Obama we saw in Denver? The apoplexy suffered by some of his biggest groupies in the American media – Chris Matthews on MSNBC and Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast website – was almost entertaining. "I've never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before," Sullivan wrote a few days after the debate. "Did Obama Just Throw The Entire Election Away?" the headline asked. The real question might be this: was the president off his game that night or, in fact, did we see the real him?
Just as the Democrats set us up to expect a different Romney, it is possible that Obama set us up (mostly four years ago) to expect a different Obama. I remember, towards the end of 2008, writing that for all his brilliance on a rally stage, there was also something oddly tedious about him, and it is a complaint you have heard more since he came to office. It is as if, Mr Obama can be warm and inspiring when addressing a live audience of 20,000, but doesn't know how to do the same in a more personal setting.
And I would hardly be the first person to suggest that he can be aloof and an intellectual snob or that he failed to spark in Denver because he was already convinced that Mr Romney would never be his match. So why bother? At the first debate at least, Mr Obama also gave the impression of backing off the dirtier digging of his own campaign – he eschewed all mention of Mr Romney's infamous behind-closed-doors "47 per cent are victims" comment – as if it were somehow beneath him.
I can't count the Republicans I have met recently who tell me without a flicker of doubt that Mr Romney will be the next president. Democrats are scared to death over what might happen, and confused. When I asked Mayor Webb if Mr Obama would win Colorado by the nine-point margin he did last time, he instantly said no. "It will be close," he replied with a look on his face like Mr Obama would actually lose it – and possibly the whole country.