Romney was outclassed by Obama, but it’s still all to play for in the US presidential elections

Obamaniacs are hopeful, but three debates in and the outcome of the election remains as clear as mud, and not just any old mud

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For any 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 until 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 (of whom more below) 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 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.

The frustration for the President is a timeless curse of incumbency. He cannot show the punters the alternative timeline. If only they could see all the additional millions on food stamps today were it not for his stimulus package. Instead, he can barely defend an economic record which looks horrible on the bare, uncontexualised statistics.

With Romney charging to the centre at a speed to dizzy the Tea Partiers he kept onside during the primaries by making Barry Goldwater sound like Hugo Chavez, the race has as much to do with logic as this debate did with its nominal subject matter. They may have spent 80 of the 90 minutes dwelling on Iran, Russia, Israel and Chinese trade protectionism, with Romney fervently supporting almost every foreign policy he lacerated during and after the primaries. Yet  the key moments had nothing to do with the nominal subject matter.

If it was startling to hear Romney playing peacenik over Israel-Palestine, even Obama wasn’t listening. Had he been, he would have reminded Romney that, during the 47 per cent address, he said that the last thing the Palestinians want is peace. But both men were less concerned with war and peace than pivoting to domestic affairs. Romney found an opening to declare “I love teachers!”,  which seemed, given that profession’s gender breakdown, a coded reprise of his wife Anne’s hilariously crude convention declaration, “We love women!” Obama banged on whenever possible, meanwhile, about his salvation of the motor industry, though since Michigan is virtually a Democratic banker, less with Detroit in mind than car workers in Ohio.

Oh me-o, oh my-o, as CJ Cregg almost sang in The West Wing, it’s all about Ohio. As with Dubya and John Kerry in 2004, this race will almost certainly turn on who ekes out a victory there. Only Obama’s narrow but consistent average poll lead there, allied to a reported edge in early voting, keep him favourite with bookies, trading markets and the number-cruncher supreme, Nate Silver of 538.com, as they enter the final furlong. Nurse it to the line, and he wins. If not, it’s the US answer to Pickfords all the way back to Chicago.

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 when the finishing post appears.

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 him, at the time of writing, by 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.

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