Mitt Romney-Barack Obama race boils down to turnout

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney heads back to

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney heads back to his seat after speaking during the second presidential debate with President Barack Obama at Hofstra University in Hempstead. (Oct. 16, 2012) (Credit: AP )

With less than three weeks left until Election Day, the presidential campaigns turn their strategies from defining their candidacies to drawing their likely supporters to the polls.

Mark the Hofstra debate as a milestone in that shift.

Challenger Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama looked to rally their partisan bases -- but also sway the minor but sought-after group of citizens who may truly be on the fence. And though it is never politically acceptable for them to say so in public, each would also love to somehow persuade his opponent's potential voters that there's no point showing up on Nov. 6.


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So it stands to reason that turnout strategy affects the debates, as it did during Hofstra's "town hall"-style clash -- and as it will in Boca Raton on Monday, when the two meet for the last time in a more traditional debate format.

Beyond energizing fans, lulling enemies and swaying swing areas, the to-do list is daunting: Defend your record. Attack the other guy as extreme. Look friendly. Talk tough. Sound cool, yet passionate. Come off as moderate, yet insist that the decision ahead is more vital than ever.

With so much going on so quickly, and so much at stake onstage, it is no wonder that success-driven candidates may exaggerate, dissemble or sidestep the question at hand.

Obama did at Hofstra what his strategists suggested he'd do months ago: highlight Romney's shifts during the general election from poses he struck during the GOP primaries, and during the private fundraiser where he suggested that 47 percent of Americans want handouts, and stances he took as a Massachusetts governor years before that.

During the 90-minute forum, Obama targeted his Republican opponent's relatively recent vows of support for Pell grants and the coal industry. He suggested an expedient softening on immigration, changing at least his emphasis from what he said during the primaries.

"In some ways," Obama charged, Romney "has gone to a more extreme place" than former President George W. Bush on social policy, he said, adding that Romney said "me too" to Republican colleagues on no-tax pledges affecting even the wealthiest, on cutting Planned Parenthood funding, and on repealing "Obamacare," although it's "the same health care plan that he passed in Massachusetts."

But that tactic has its pitfalls. Obama may find it difficult to credibly call Romney "extreme" when he also says Romney agreed to a form of his own health care plan. Can Obama really persuade the middle-of-the-spectrum voter that Romney sits far on the right -- yet also persuade voters they don't know which Romney would govern if elected?

Romney, not saddled with a White House record to defend, got to compare the Obama "hope" and "change" promises of 2008 with current economic problems. "The president has tried," he said, "but his policies haven't worked."

For Romney, too, there is a credible limit to playing offense. When interviewed, voters -- at least around here, the site of the debate -- often express suspicion about negative ads, unless they resonate for a specific purpose. Even those with open minds realize that whatever the promise, a president must have congressional support to enact any program -- something Romney asserts he can muster, though that heavily depends on how the House and Senate elections go.

Not everyone who voted in 2008 will turn out Nov. 6, but many who didn't vote then may take part this time. More and more, from here on in, the contest and its messages are about whose supporters show up at the polls.