09/18/2012 04:18 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2012

The Presidential Race Should Be Over, But It's Not: Countdown Day 49

WASHINGTON -- Remember when Mitt Romney said that Palestinians don't want peace and aren't as culturally prepared for modernity as Israelis are?

If you were surprised, you shouldn't have been. His well-traveled and savvy chief campaign adviser, Stuart Stevens, did media on Ariel Sharon's campaigns for prime minister of Israel.

Stevens admired the tough, cold-blooded Sharon, who ultimately came to repudiate some of his hard-liner past. Another Sharon admirer, and Stevens client, was former President George W. Bush.

Stevens likes tough guys, and his effort to turn Romney into one will go down as either one of the smartest -- or one of the dumbest -- moves in modern politics.

In some ways, Stevens is the behind-the-scenes story of the campaign. It has been his concept and execution, for better or worse, and even though some insiders continue to try to marginalize him, it's too late for that.

And Stevens might yet be vindicated.

As of today, Sept. 17, seven weeks until Election Day, everyone who is anyone has pretty much concluded that Mitt Romney is toast and that the presidential race is effectively over.

Inside the Beltway, the sentiment seems to be: Let's just swear in President Obama again right now. And that's among conservatives. A top Democratic consultant just told me that he expects his party will hold the Senate and even come close to taking back the House.

So, of course, this is the perfect time for me to start a daily column, counting down the fourth quarter of the 2012 campaign.

Because it is not over.

The story is not that Romney is toast; it is that somehow, and for some reason that matters, he hasn't been vaporized altogether by now.

If you are David Axelrod and Jim Messina at Obama reelection headquarters in Chicago, you know that, and don't think it's over, either.

Here at The Huffington Post, we have Obama way up in the Electoral College count, 316 to 206, with only two tossups, Iowa and Wisconsin. But the president is losing ground in the Gallup tracking poll and as of yesterday leads Romney by only one point, 47 to 46 percent.

"So now Gallup has this a point race," Stevens told me today. "Since last Wednesday, when the president's convention bounce peaked, he has lost almost a point a day.

"The hardest thing in politics, I think, is to let voters tell you what they think, not what you think. I struggle with that every hour.

"But the obvious question would seem to be: Now that the convention is over and Romney is back on the air, what is going to stop his slide?

"Obama has a fundamental problem. What's he going to do?"

They don't pay Stevens the big bucks for nothing. He's a terrific spinner.

But he isn't all wrong.

No doubt, Romney is the worst presidential candidate since the last time a former governor of Massachusetts ran for the office, Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

The briefest review shows why. Romney ran a mean, content-less primary race that left him disliked generally and hated in his party. Last week he jumped in with what ended up sounding like cheap comments in the midst of the Libya consulate catastrophe. Now a video is out in which he dismisses 47 percent of the country -- including millions of Republican senior citizens -- as freeloaders. And I could go on.

His (at least until now) chief strategist, Stevens, is a very charming fellow, an odd mix of political romantic and assassin. But in some respects I'm not sure that he has served Romney very well, though it's not Stevens' fault that Romney wanted him at his side.

The son of a prominent lawyer in Jackson, Miss., Stevens is neither a staunch cultural conservative nor a gun-rack good ol' boy. His schooling is elite (Colorado College, Middlebury College and Pembroke College at Oxford); his tastes sophisticated and worldly (Alpine skiing, gourmet cooking). He is hardly at one with the Republicans' modern evangelical base.

It was Stevens' view that the race could be won solely on the basis of Obama's weak track record as commander-in-chief of a lousy economy.

That theory ("Obama isn't working," copied from Margaret Thatcher's "Labour Isn't Working" campaign in Britain years ago) appealed to Romney for several reasons: Mitt wouldn't have to talk about himself, which he doesn't like to do. He wouldn't have to talk about Mormonism, which he doesn't like to do. He wouldn't have to dwell on ideology, which he doesn't like to do.

He could just talk about business, which he sort of likes to do, and knife the president's record on the economy, which even Romney, a clumsy politician at best, could learn how to do.

And he could ignore foreign policy. When it came to the Middle East, he could rely on Stevens, who long ago shared his Manichean Middle East worldview with Romney.

So why is Mitt still hanging around?

The answer remains what it was: the economy and voters' fears of the future. The middle class keeps losing ground. Twenty-three millions people are unemployed or underemployed. We're in the midst of the slowest recovery since the Depression. Young voters can't find jobs. The monthly jobs reports are bad.

And the president hasn't run a very high-minded campaign either.

So many real problems remain unaddressed. But that's a topic for another day -- i.e., tomorrow.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.



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