There are 36 days left until Election Day, and that means that every day matters. But the next five days matter more than most when it comes to the race's final outcome.
Here's why: There are two seminal events in the campaign this week -- the first presidential debate on Wednesday night and the release of the September jobs report on Friday morning.
Yes, we know -- and have written about -- the fact that the general election debates in a presidential race may be less than meets the eye. And, yes, we know that the economy may well be a settled issue for most voters already -- a phenomenon expertly documented by BuzzFeed's Ben Smith and Zeke Miller.
But the simple fact is that, for the 6 to 8 percent of the electorate who remains genuinely undecided (sidebar: Who are these people?!), the next five days could set a narrative that will push them to a choice sometime between now and Nov. 6.
Let's run through three possible scenarios for how the week could play out -- and what it might mean for the race.
Scenario #1: Solid Romney debate, bad (under 80,000 jobs created) jobs report
Romney has beaten the campaign collapse story back over the last few days as poll numbers in places like Iowa suggest what most smart political types knew all along: the country is too divided for Obama to run away with the election. If Romney looks up to the job Wednesday night and then the jobs report produces less-than-expected in terms of job creation, by this time next week the "Romney momentum" storyline will be in full swing.
Scenario #2: Obama unscathed in debate, good (150,000 jobs created) jobs report
The last three weeks or so have been the best of Obama's presidential campaign to date (nice timing if you are a Democrat). If Obama is seen to have survived Wednesday's debate without taking any direct hits from Romney AND the jobs report produces some good-ish news, it would affirm the idea that the incumbent's case for a second term is growing stronger as the election approaches. Remember that much of the progress Obama has made nationally and in swing states in recent weeks is due to a renewed optimism about the economy and the direction of the country; if Obama has a strong jobs report to point to for the final month of the campaign, it will only make that argument more powerful to undecided voters.
Scenario #3: Debate draw, mediocre (100,000 jobs created) jobs report
Combine a debate that decides nothing with a jobs report that tells us nothing (really) about the direction of the economy, and this week will amount to a push -- setting the stage for the second and third debates later this month to potentially make more of a difference. One thought on a mediocre jobs report: The growing optimism we mentioned above doesn't seem to be based on any particular economic indicator, since all of the indicators seem to be pointing in different directions. That suggests that no new news is good news for Obama on the economic front. If the jobs report produces headlines that point to a lack of clarity in the jobs picture, that sort of status quo-ness could well allow the incumbent to keep the perception of momentum -- or at least lurching progress -- he has been able to build over the past few weeks.
Mixed signals from Romney camp on debate expectations: While the Romney campaign was lowering expectations for its first debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), in two separate Sunday show appearances, raised them -- a lot.
Christie, one of Romney's top surrogates and the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, said Wednesday's debate is a chance to "restart" the campaign.
“I have absolute confidence that when we get to Thursday morning, George, all of you are going to be shaking your head saying it’s a brand new race with 33 days to go,” Christie said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”
At the same time, Romney's vice presidential nominee was playing down the debate's importance.
“I don’t think one event is going to make or break this campaign,” Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday."
Christie's comments aside, Romney's campaign has worked hard to lower expectations, as has Obama's campaign. If Romney doesn't perform well now, Democrats can point to Christie's comments as proof that the campaign was planning on a game-changing performance.
Romney op-ed hits Obama's foreign policy: Romney's campaign isn't letting off the gas when it comes to attacking Obama's foreign policy, with the candidate authoring an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal late Sunday night.
"We needed a strategy for success, but the president offered none," Romney said of the situation in the Middle East. "And now he seeks to downplay the significance of the calamities of the past few weeks."
The White House late on Friday revealed that it believed the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya on Sept. 11 was part of a planned terror plot rather than a spontaneous mob action, as it had previously posited.
The issue is threatening to distract from what has been a very good couple weeks for the Obama campaign, and Romney's campaign -- after initially whiffing on Libya -- is clearly taking another stab at it. (Worth noting: Wednesday's debate will focus on domestic -- not foreign -- policy).
David Plouffe tries to explain the administration's response to the situation in Libya.
Massachusetts officials who served with Romney will travel to battleground states this week to criticize his record as governor. They will be in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
A new poll in Arizona from a GOP-leaning pollster shows Romney ahead by just four points and Rep. Jeff Flake (R) leading the state's open Senate race by three.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright says "there's just nothing going on" with Romney.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) says Rep. Todd Akin (R) may win the Missouri Senate race and suggests it would be more about national issues than Akin's foibles.
A new Boston Globe poll shows Elizabeth Warren at 43 percent and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) at 38 percent.
Another poll of the North Carolina governor's race shows Republican Pat McCrory with a double-digit lead.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) and former governor Tommy Thompson (R) debated for the first time on Friday. Here's the blow-by-blow.
"Debates Can Shift a Race’s Outcome, but It’s Not Easy" -- John Harwood, New York Times
"As Iowa Goes, So May Go Romney’s Chances" -- Nate Silver, New York Times
"As Candidates Drill for Debates, More Jousting on Libya" -- Mark Landler, New York Times
"Economists reluctantly pick Romney" -- Chris Isidore, CNN
"The Supreme Court, absent from the election debate" -- Robert Barnes, Washington Post
"Canvassers always knock twice" -- Stephanie McCrummen and Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post