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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — Normally, a president presiding over 8 percent unemployment and a country that sees itself on the wrong track wouldn’t stand a chance. But then a candidate with Mitt Romney’s shortcomings, including his failure to ignite much enthusiasm within his own party, wouldn’t stand a chance, either.

The combination of the two explains why this election remains close, but President Obama heads into the campaign’s last phase with some major advantages, starting, as Ronald Reagan did, with a rock solid base. These voters will support him no matter what the economic numbers say. Their commitment helps create an electoral map that also favors Obama, particularly with Ohio stubbornly retaining a tilt the president’s way.

Obama also has a benefit of the doubt from many voters because they know he inherited an economic catastrophe, a point powerfully made by former President Bill Clinton in Charlotte. And more voters are enthusiastic about Obama, the man, than about Romney, the man. That’s why Team Romney had to spend so much time at the Tampa convention rescuing Romney’s personal image. It also explains the wide energy gap between the two conclaves.

Democrats were so eager to help Obama that it seemed they were ready to cheer even the reading of a phone book or a grocery list. Tampa was flat. Charlotte was hopping.

In fact, the same candidate dominated both conventions. But the centrality of Obama to this election is also where Romney’s advantages begin. If Republicans are rather temperate about their own nominee, they are resolutely determined to oust Obama. This gives Romney at least some maneuvering room with his base.

The economy’s difficulties form the Alpha and the Omega of Romney’s efforts — and the economic reports between now and Election Day seem unlikely to show a sudden spike upward in the country’s financial fortunes. Romney still has time to convince enough voters that they’d be better off if they changed presidents.

Romney will have a money edge. In presidential races, cash gaps don’t make that much of a difference as long as they are not too big, and Obama’s fundraising will at least be competitive. More worrisome to Democrats is how the super PACs financed by billionaires and multimillionaires might affect House and Senate races.