WASHINGTON -- The late Paul Tully was a beloved Democratic campaign operative from Philly: a burly, hard-drinking progressive with a blue-collar background, a Yale degree (he played D-line) and a light-years-ahead-of-his-time feel for how to target individual voters on a national basis for a presidential campaign.
He died of passionate hard living in 1992 at the age of 48. But if he were alive, he'd be telling Democrats: Don't panic. It ain't over till it's over.
Long before there was Facebook or Twitter, in the dawn of email and the twilight of Fortran, Tully figured how Bill Clinton could win in 1992 by focusing on swing voters (ancestral Southern Democrats) along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.
Clinton and Al Gore left the Democratic convention on a bus trip that followed Tully's route. Tully died a month later, but Clinton-Gore won Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri -- and unseated President George H.W. Bush.
I was sitting with Tully in a bar in Boston one day, located, ironically enough, on Milk Street. We were having a drink and talking. I felt privileged to be in his presence, and he didn't entirely dissuade me from thinking (correctly) that I knew next to nothing.
He had two drams of wisdom for me that afternoon, and I remember them clearly.
The first was about his fellow Irish. "If it weren't for this," he said, holding up his beer as though it were a toast, "we would run the world."
That piece of wisdom doesn't apply to this race.
The other does. "Politics is a curved, interactive universe," he told me. (I don't know how many drinks into the afternoon this was.) "Every action, every data point, affects the ones that follow," he said. "There are no straight-line extrapolations in campaigns. You can't draw a line between two points and then straight-line it all out to the final result. It doesn't work that way."
A week or 10 days ago, reporters, analysts and airheads alike were wondering aloud whether President Barack Obama might be on his way to a crushing victory of the then-hapless Mitt Romney.
Before last Wednesday's debate, one of the grand viziers of number-crunching (certainly NOT our own cautious and sagacious Mark Blumenthal) said that no one who was in Romney's trailing position at that point had ever come back to win the White House.
That looks like a laughable statement now.
My own view was that it was way too early to count Romney out. I wrote and said that a guy who had made that many mistakes -- who had had so much dumped on his head, and who still remained within hailing distance of the president -- still had a chance.
Less than a week later, things seemed to have turned utterly upside-down. The Denver debate has sent Romney rocketing into a lead, and tightened races in key swing states to the point that a Romney Electoral College victory now seems eminently possible -- rather than the ridiculous GOP wishful thinking it looked like only days ago.
Here in Washington, Democrats who don't like Obama -- who view him as an arrogant loner who never calls them -- seem almost to relish what looks like his impending demise. I talked to one of them Tuesday night. He compared the Denver debate to 1980, when Ronald Reagan in one session reassured a nation, and in so doing sent President Jimmy Carter back to his peanut farm in Georgia.
A non-Fox media that has largely lauded and protected Obama is dialing back fast, choosing to write straighter, less vitriolic stories about Romney and looking for Obama-collapse story lines. Some writers heretofore thought of as "liberal" and/or in the tank for the president suddenly are writing that Romney ISN'T a liar, might in fact be a man of good will, and is actually shrewd.
The thing about the media: They are either at your feet or at your throat.
But the race is no more over now than it was a week ago. And since, sadly, Paul Tully is not here, I will try to explain why.
For one, despite what the number-crunchers and trend analyzers say, things can happen in the last month of a campaign for president. A month is a year and a year is a lifetime in politics.
Second, Obama's numbers haven't collapsed, at least not yet. Romney's have just gotten better, after his smoothly evasive, reasonable-sounding and even gentlemanly performance in Denver.
Third, the Democratic base may not be fired with the messianic enthusiasm it had in 2008. But the party is far more united than it usually is. People are disappointed with the president for one or another issue, but there is not an anti-Obama wing.
Fourth, this is not 1980. Reagan debated Carter one week before the election, which was perfect timing for the challenger. At the time, Reagan had pulled even with the president in the polls, but undecided voters, who knew him primary from negative ads and negative national press coverage, worried that he was a doddering anti-communist coot who would destroy Social Security and launch a nuclear first strike on Moscow.
What they saw on TV was a kindly, mild-mannered gent with asked one simple question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
It was over, in part because Carter, who was much more disliked than Obama, had virtually no time to recover before Election Day.
Obama has a month.
That doesn't mean there is no reason for Democrats to be deeply worried.
If Tully were alive, I'm guessing that he would be furious at the Obama campaign for stressing the Big Bird budget issue. It's not just that crusading for avian rights is silly, or that PBS funding is somewhat indefensible. It is that deficit-reduction is a Republican issue, not a Democratic one. Has anyone told the president that the annual deficits have been more than $1 trillion a year?
Tully would be telling the president to focus with pride on what he has done well, which is more than he has been given credit for.
He would use the last month to drive home the threat that Romney and his erstwhile Tea Party friends ultimately mean to the entire architecture of social welfare built up since the New Deal -- and still largely popular.
He might even tell the president that he should remember his own Irish heritage, and relish the battle, and have a drink or two.
It ain't over unless Obama behaves like it is.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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