With the two parties' conventions now over, the final days of the 2012 campaign are upon us. As this sort of beginning of the end -- well -- begins, it's worth noting a few things we know will matter in the battle between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney over the next 57 days.
* The presidential debates: There will be three one-on-one face-offs between Obama and Romney over these final eight weeks of the campaign and they are, without question, the most important and influential factor when it comes to voters making up their minds. The presidential debates are set for Oct. 3, Oct. 16 and Oct. 22 with a vice presidential debate sandwiched in between on Oct. 11. (We tend not to put much stock in the VP debate's ability to change the race's dynamic although it sure will be interesting to see Joe Biden and Paul Ryan square off.)
To understand how important these debates can be, you only need to go back to the 2008 campaign when Obama's steady performance against Sen. John McCain convinced many undecideds in the electorate that he was ready for the job.
This time around, Romney has more to prove but also a bigger opportunity to use the debates as a springboard into the final days of the election. Obama is the known commodity in this race so all eyes will be on Romney to see if he looks like he belongs on stage and can give and take with the incumbent. Some Republicans believe that if Romney looks and sounds presidential in the debates, those five or six percent of undecideds looking for a reason to vote against Obama will have it.
* The September and October jobs reports: The September report will be released Oct. 5, while the October report comes out Nov. 2.
It's clear from last week's August jobs report that the economy won't get significantly better between now and Election Day. But the final two jobs reports will either be the icing on the top of the cake for Romney's argument that Obama doesn't know what he's doing or a bit of a break for the incumbent to argue that things are slowly but surely getting better.
No matter how the jobs reports turn out politically, they will get wall-to-wall media coverage given the intense focus by the electorate on the health (or lack thereof) of the economy. Given how few people are undecided, two bad reports (and the resultant press attention) could well swing the election to Romney. Two good -- or even slightly better-than-expected -- reports could hand Obama some momentum.
* Romney's money advantage: In the final eight weeks of the race, Romney, the Republican National Committee and the slew of outside conservative organizations like American Crossroads are going to dump hundreds of millions of dollars onto the TV airwaves in swing states -- a barrage that Obama and his side simply will not be able to match.
At issue is whether the heavy spending by Obama's campaign during the summer months -- as Romney was forced to wait until the GOP convention to begin to be able to spend general election funds -- has defined the race in a way that is both a) beneficial to the incumbent and b) unchangeable even by the heaviest spending on the Republican side.
Democrats insist that's the case; that the choice has been established between a damaged but likable incumbent and an out-of-touch challenger who doesn't understand the struggles of the middle class. Republicans reply that Romney has survived Obama's spending onslaught and remains within striking distance, an ideal set of circumstances for them.
Beyond those three factors, it's hard to see much of anything -- short of a massive gaffe that neither candidate is likely to commit -- doing much to change the underlying nature of the race.
It's close today, and it will almost certainly be close for the next 57 days.
Romney raised $111.6 million in August: Speaking of Romney cash advantage, his campaign announced its August fundraising totals this morning, and it set a new personal record.
The campaign said it raised a total of $111.6 million between its own committee, the Republican National Committee and a joint fundraising committee between the two. It had $168.5 million cash on hand at the end of the month, down from $185.9 million at the start of the month.
President Obama's campaign hasn't released its totals, but it has been outraised by a significant amount the last two months, as Romney has built a big cash advantage for the stretch run.
NRCC launches Medicare ads: The National Republican Congressional Committee is going up with a series of ads on Medicare in five key House districts.
The combined buy is more than half a million dollars. The ads will run against Reps. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Democratic candidates Gary McDowell in Michigan and Jamie Wall in Wisconsin.
The ad demonstrate the GOP's intent to keep trying to play offense on an issue that Democrats saw falling into their laps when Ryan was picked as Romney's vice presidential pick.
Democrats have hit Republicans for wanting to turn Medicare into a voucher program; the GOP has countered by pointing to $700 billion in Medicare cuts contained in Obamacare.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also run ads on Medicare in recent weeks.
Romney's campaign has added Wisconsin to its most recent ad buy. The state was the one swing state that hadn't been included in the buy.
Some polling indicates Obama's lead has grown in recent days, since the end of the Democratic National Convention.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is up with a new ad hitting former governor Tommy Thompson (R) for leaving Wisconsin for Washington D.C.
Another poll, from conservative-leaning Civitas, in North Carolina puts Republican Pat McCrory up by double digits in the state's open governor's race.
"Did Barack Obama Save Ohio?" -- Matt Bai, New York Times
"With Senate at stake, GOP waits on Akin’s next move, McCaskill goes on offense" -- Rosalind S. Helderman and Jason Horowitz, Washington Post
"Romney says he would keep some parts of Obama’s health-care law" -- Bill Turque, Washington Post
"Congress Comes Back to a Face-Off With Angry Farmers" -- Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times