In every presidential contest back to George Washington, there’s a time when the two candidates seem like equal combatants, with each deploying his own considerable skills and well-crafted strategy.
The race see-saws: One week, Candidate A is up. The next, Candidate B.
Then there’s a time in every battle for the world’s most powerful job when one candidate seems to outclass the other, when the campaign goes through a sea change and one man takes a clear lead, often an insurmountable one.
That happened in 2008, when Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain were running neck-and-neck in the early summer before the Arizona Republican, through missteps and a failure to fight, began to falter and fade in the fall.
Historians may well look back, when they dissect Mr. Romney’s landslide victory in November 2012, to last week — a week when the Republican candidate not only showed that he’s ready to mix it up in the octagon, but the Democratic incumbent looked like an overrated palooka finally matched against someone his own size.
Hard-core conservatives were horrified at the prospect of a Romney run, looking anywhere and everywhere for an alternative, even flocking to an unknown pizza baron in search of a better candidate.
Cut to Mr. Romney, in shirtsleeves on Thursday, alone at a podium, with an overgrown parking lot and empty building as a backdrop. SOLYNDRA, said the sign.
“This building, this half a billion dollar taxpayer investment, represents a serious conflict of interest on the part of the president and his team. It’s also a symbol of how the president thinks about free enterprise. Free enterprise to the president means taking money from the taxpayers and giving it freely to his friends,” Mr. Romney said.
Meanwhile, up in Boston, Mr. Romney’s home turf, the Obama campaign had trotted out its top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, architect of one of the greatest upsets in political history, the defeat of the Clinton machine.
He was there to highlight what Team Obama considers its opponent’s failures during his time as governor of Massachusetts.
But there to meet him were 100 Romney supporters, shouting “Solyndra!” and “Where are the jobs?!” They virtually drowned out the sweat-pouring Mr. Axelrod, who was clearly over his head and so befuddled he actually retorted: “You can’t handle the truth, my friends. If you could handle the truth, you’d quiet down.”
A wobbly walk back to his corner.
The Obama campaign protested like thin-skinned prima donnas. “The Romney campaign has embraced juvenile tactics in the past. When they’re running around with Donald Trump, it’s not surprising that they’d engage in circuslike tactics like this,” said spokeswoman Lis Smith.
But Mr. Romney, unlike Mr. McCain, said all’s fair in love and war — and politics. “If they’re going to be heckling us, why, we’re not going to sit back and play by very different rules. If the president is going to have his people coming to my rallies and heckling, why, we’ll show them that, you know, we conservatives have the same kind of capacity he does.”
Or more succinctly, he summed up, “Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
For Team Obama, Friday was worse.
The unemployment rate rose to 8.2 percent, the economy created a dismal 69,000 jobs and the stock market tanked, dropping 275 points. Mr. Obama disappeared, heading off to SIX fundraisers and instead trotting out a low-level White House spokesman to do his talking.
“Very deep hole,” the flack said. “Significant head winds related to gas prices,” he offered. “External factors” like “instability in the eurozone region,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Obama returned to the divisive politics that mark his presidency, addressing the economy to partisan crowds of supporters.
“Hole,” he said. “Congress has not acted on …,” he added. “Serious head winds” like “gas prices,” he offered. “No country is an island,” he tried, to laughter. “Some countries are islands. Europe — the world is interconnected,” he stammered.
Mr. Romney, staying on point, was having none of it. “This is very bad news for the American people, and the president is always quick to find someone to blame,” he said. “First it was George Bush, then Congress, ATM machines, then it was Europe. The truth is it’s the job of the president to get people back to work.”
After a last fundraiser in Chicago, all Mr. Obama wanted to do was go home.
“I am sleeping in my bed tonight. I’m going to go into my kitchen. I might cook something for myself, putter around in the backyard a little bit.”
The way things are going now, come November, he’ll have lots of time to putter.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.