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First Thoughts: Has the race changed?

Has the race fundamentally changed? We’ll get a better answer in the next few days… Romney to deliver foreign-policy speech in Virginia at 11:20 am ET… But where are the real foreign-policy differences between Romney and Obama?... The Obama camp -- with new TV ad and memo -- issues its rebuttal to Romney… Obama refers to his debate performance… His camp and DNC raked in $181 million in September… Romney moves to the middle – rhetorically… And Priorities USA’s latest TV ad.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is set to deliver a major foreign policy speech today, but as NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro report, the policies Romney will propose sound similar to those pursued by President Obama.  Also, the week after the first presidential debate, Gallup daily tracking polls shows the race is tied.

*** Has the race changed? We all assume that the presidential contest has changed following last week’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. The most recent sign: Gallup’s daily tracking, which had Obama up 50%-45% among registered voters in the three days before the debate, but shows the race tied 47%-47% in the three days after. But to see if the race has truly changed, we’re awaiting battleground-state polls conducted over the weekend through today -- to fully let the debate, job numbers, and everything else sink in. The body language from both campaigns suggests that the race did change; you’re seeing 1) a more confident Romney camp and 2) an Obama campaign with a greater sense of urgency. And if the upcoming polls show this, it will give Team Romney another shot in the arm, just like Obama got after the conventions. But it’s also very possible that the race hasn’t fundamentally changed, but simply tightened and is back to where everyone thought it would be six months ago. Where are the battleground states, polling wise by the end of this week? Is Ohio a margin-of-error contest, or is the president still ahead by 4-6 points? What about Wisconsin? Iowa? These are the three states where Romney had fallen far behind and needed to make up the most ground.

*** Talking foreign policy: After his strong debate performance last week and two weeks before the final presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney today will deliver a foreign-policy speech in Virginia attacking the Obama administration’s response to the unrest in the Middle East. “I know the president hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope,” he will say at the Virginia Military Institute beginning at 11:20 am ET, per excerpts. “But hope is not a strategy. We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity.” Romney also will use his address to criticize the administration's response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. “This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam… No, as the Administration has finally conceded, these attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others.”

President Obama spent the weekend campaigning in California, where he also picked up some cash. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney wrapped up a three-day swing through Florida. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** Yet where are the real policy differences? But according to the excerpts of the speech, almost every policy Romney will call for -- tough sanctions on Iran, withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, free trade, vigorously going after the terrorists in Libya -- has been pursued by the Obama administration. (The one exception we can see is Romney’s call to arm the Syrian rebels, but the CIA already appears to be doing this covertly.) Indeed, the New York Times today notes that Romney “has yet to fill in many of the details of how he would conduct policy toward the rest of the world, or to resolve deep ideological rifts within the Republican Party and his own foreign policy team. It is a disparate and politely fractious team of advisers that includes warring tribes of neoconservatives, traditional strong-defense conservatives and a band of self-described ‘realists’ who believe there are limits to the degree the United States can impose its will.” The difference Romney appears to be attempting to outline is one of tone and style -- not substance.

Lynne Sladky / AP

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, waves as he arrives with his wife Ann at a campaign rally, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

*** The Obama camp’s rebuttal to Romney: Meanwhile, the Obama camp is countering Romney’s foreign-policy speech with a TV ad it’s airing only in Virginia (so it can get into today’s coverage of the speech), which notes the criticism that Romney’s foreign trip and his initial statement to the embassy attacks received. The ad’s kicker: “If this is how he handles the world now, just think what Mitt Romney might do as president.” The campaign also issues a memo stating: “The fact is that Barack Obama has one of the strongest national security records of any President in generations – he has decimated al Qaeda’s leadership, taken out Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq, provided unparalleled support to Israel, produced unprecedented pressure on Iran, strengthened our alliances, and restored our standing in the world.” It continues, “In contrast, Mitt Romney has, throughout this campaign, raised more questions than answers about what he’d actually do as president. He supported the Iraq war and said that removing all of our troops from Iraq was ‘tragic,’ he called Russia - not al-Qaeda - our ‘number one geopolitical foe,’ and he said that he wouldn’t have set a timeline to end the war in Afghanistan.” That said, the foreign-policy advantage the White House THOUGHT it had a month ago is now in question. Every day, a new question arises on how the security situation was handled in Benghazi.

*** Obama refers to his debate performance: At a Los Angeles fundraiser last night, per NBC’s Ali Weinberg, President Obama alluded to his debate performance -- his first public comments regarding his less-than-stellar showing. Praising his opening acts at the Nokia Theater, which included Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi and Katy Perry, Obama said, “These guys perform flawlessly night after night.” He then added, waiting a beat for comedic timing, “I can’t always say the same.” He then said this about his 2008 campaign, “Everybody always remembers the victory, but they don’t always remember the bumps in the road; things always look good in retrospect. But in the middle of it, we were -- we made all kinds of mistakes. We goofed up, I goofed up, but the American people carried us forward.”

*** Team Obama hauled in $181 million last month: For Team Obama, Friday’s job numbers helped soften the blow from the first debate. And so did its fundraising haul for September. On Saturday, the Obama campaign announced that it and the DNC had raised a whopping $181 million last month -- the largest monthly haul of the cycle by either side. We haven’t seen fundraising numbers for Team Romney, but the Obama/DNC haul suggests that its grassroots army is beginning to flex its muscles.

*** Moving to the middle -- rhetorically: Over the weekend, Politico reported that the Romney camp is running a radio ad in Ohio pitching Romney as a bipartisan fixer who will work across the aisle. And this epitomizes the shift we’ve seen from Romney in the last week since the debate. His policies haven’t necessarily moved to the middle, but his rhetoric has. This began at the debate. Tone is everything when trying to straddle ideology and electability. And Romney, for the first time this campaign, appears to have found his voice on this front. And speaking of finding his voice, another notable move over the weekend: Romney is now sharing personal stories.

*** Priorities’ latest TV ad: The pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action is up with a TV ad hitting Romney on education. “Take away his toys and he’ll play with a stick. Take away their bikes and they’ll still find a way to get where they’re going,” the ad goes. “But if you take away early childhood education, slash K-12 funding, and cut college aid for middle class families they won’t go far. Yet that’s exactly what Mitt Romney wants to do to pay for a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar tax break for multi-millionaires. If Mitt Romney wins, the middle class loses.”

*** On the trail: Obama is out in California, where he announces the establishment of the César E. Chávez national monument and where he hits fundraisers in San Francisco… Romney gives his aforementioned foreign-policy speech and then holds a rally in Newport News, VA at 5:20 pm ET… Jill Biden campaigns in Pennsylvania… Paul Ryan stumps in Ohio and Michigan… Later this week, both Obama and Romney campaign in Ohio on Tuesday, and the VP debate is on Thursday.

Countdown to VP debate: 3 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 8 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 14 days
Countdown to Election Day: 29 days

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