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First Thoughts: Presidential race couldn't be tighter - how each one wins

Tight as a tick on a deer in the woods, a dog in the bushes? Pick your simile. Whatever it is, the new NBC/WSJ poll shows a tied race. … Three reasons in the poll for why each candidate could win. … Which message wins the day – macro (Romney/economy, jobs taxes) or micro (Obama’s soft sell – compassion, character) … It’s also all about demographics – white men vs. Latinos. … Previewing tonight’s debate and why it’s tricky for Romney. … And how they’ll go after each other tonight. … 15 days to go!

Will the important slice of undecided voters – still not persuaded they have a reason to rehire the president – use Monday's final debate to help make up their minds? The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

BOCA RATON, FL -- Cue The ‘Tight As A Drum/Tick’ Cliches: Our latest national NBC/WSJ poll shows a 47%-47% tie among likely voters. Not all ties are created equal and the question is whether this tie signals a shift away from President Obama and toward Mitt Romney. The poll actually sends a lot of mixed messages on this front. The toplines, though, are not good for the president. The fact of the matter is 47% is a VERY precarious position for an incumbent. If this were 48-48 or 49-49, this would be a different conversation. A good ground game can make up 1 or 2 points; making up 3 points is a much taller order. To put it another way: if this race is at 47%-47% the Sunday before the election, there’s going to be a run on Tums at every pharmacy in walking distance of the Obama campaign’s Chicago headquarters. But it’s not the Sunday before Election Day. And if you digest the entire poll, this race isn’t nearly as easy to handicap as it might look on paper. It’s that close, folks, and we can point to three reasons why President Obama will win on Nov. 6 and three reasons why Mitt Romney will win.

*** Three reasons why Obama will win: (1) Room to grow: While he’s tied among likely voters, he leads by five points among registered voters, 49%-44%, which suggests a strong turnout can push him across the finish line. Indeed, Obama enjoys a HUGE lead among Latinos, and if they turn out in decent numbers that could help him -- especially in states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. (2) More economic optimism: Per the poll, 45% think the economy will improve in the next 12 months (that’s 18 points higher than it was in July), and only 9% believe it will get worse (the lowest percentage we’ve seen in the survey. EVER!). And (3) Obama’s just more likable than Romney: Obama’s fav/unfav is 49%-43% vs. Romney’s 43%-44%. But while those numbers for Romney are actually an improvement, he’s still trailing Obama badly on other personal connectivity traits. For instance, Obama leads Romney by a whopping 32 points (57%-25%) on who is more easygoing and likable. Obama also has HUGE leads on Romney on understanding “average people” and “looking out for the middle class.”

Reuters, Getty Images

In the final push in the 2012 presidential election, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their last appeals to voters.

*** Three reasons why Romney will win: (1) Voters are becoming more and more comfortable with a Romney presidency: According to the poll, a combined 47% say they are either “optimistic and confident” or “satisfied and hopeful” about a Romney presidency -- up five points from our NBC/WSJ poll right before the debates. (That’s compared with Obama being at 50% on this question.) (2) Romney leads Obama when it comes to the economy: Despite that economic optimism mentioned above, Romney leads narrowly on the economy. And (3) Doubts about a second Obama term: 62% say the president should make major changes in a second term; just 4% said they want the second term to be like the first term. Again: 62% wants MAJOR CHANGES; 4% want status quo. Ouch. That’s a flashing red light, though it’s not far removed from the 55% who said the same about George W. Bush in 2004, who grinded out a victory. So when you look these six different points – three in favor for Obama, three in favor for Romney – you see why either the country will either “reluctantly” re-hire Obama or “reluctantly” fire him. This isn’t an easy decision for these last few undecided voters, either the ones truly undecided about the two candidates or the folks in the Obama coalition undecided about whether it’s worth voting.

*** Macro-messaging vs. Micro-messaging: Here’s another thing the election could hinge on: Whose messaging was better – Romney’s macro-message on the economy or Obama’s micro-message on everything else? As alluded to above, Romney holds a six-point lead over Obama (46%-40%) on which candidate would better deal with the economy. He also has the advantage on jobs and unemployment (46%-39%) and the federal budget deficit (48%-35%). And by a four-point margin (45%-41%), voters think Romney is better prepared to create jobs and improve the economy over the next four years. But Obama leads on almost all other issue and character-trait questions -- being easy going and likable, dealing with issue of concern to women (53%-25%), being compassionate enough to understand average people (53%-29%), looking out for the middle class (52%-36%) and dealing with Medicare (46%-37%) "Romney is dominating the macro-messaging of the economy," says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). "And Obama is dominating the micro-messaging" on things like women's issues, compassion and likeability. 

Ahead of Monday's final presidential debate, a new NBC-WSJ poll shows President Obama and Governor Romney are tied 47% to 47% among likely voters. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** White men vs. Latinos: And what demographic group becomes more important in this election -- white men or Latinos? Per the poll, Romney leads Obama by a whopping 60%-34% among white men. According to Hart, white men represent 35% of all voters (or more) in all regions across the country, and that’s quite a deficit for Obama to make up. On the other hand, Obama is winning seven-in-10 Latinos, and that’s a big deficit for Romney, too. “The presidency right now is hinging on Latino turnout and margins,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). Does Obama win them by 70%? Do they make up more than the 9% of the electorate they were in 2008? Or less? The answer could determine the election. This Latino gulf makes us think we might want to re-orient ourselves in focusing on Florida and Colorado as more decisive than say, Ohio and Virginia? Just a thought, folks. For more on Latinos, refresh your browser at noon ET on First Read for full NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample results.

*** Maybe the most striking set of numbers in the NBC/WSJ poll were these: 55% say who wins the upcoming presidential election will make a great deal of difference to their lives. That’s higher than in any other presidential election (2004, 1996, 1992) the poll has surveyed. And among these voters who say the election will mean a great deal of difference to them, 48% are backing Obama and 48% are supporting Romney -- once again, a tie. The country couldn’t be more split. We also see it in the question about which outcome they’d prefer -- an Obama presidency and a Democratic Congress, a Romney president and a GOP Congress, or some sort of split. Less than 10% wanted some sort of split control. Look for a LOT of straight-ticket voting. This could mean the battleground state Senate races, including Florida, Ohio and Nevada, will be MUCH closer than some believe.

*** The Battle in Boca: Tonight's presidential debate -- the final one of this race -- presents opportunities for both Obama and Romney, according to our NBC/WSJ poll. Given that the subject matter is on foreign policy, this should be an advantage for Obama. But he finds himself leading Romney by just three points on who would be a better commander-in-chief (44%-41%), down from his eight-point edge before the debate season began. (That said, Obama does lead Romney by eight points when it comes to strictly to foreign policy.) So a clear win for Obama offers the chance to see his numbers here go back up. For Romney, especially after he mishandled the exchange over Libya in the previous debate, tonight's showdown gives him the opportunity to maintain this near parity on being a commander-in-chief. As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Hart (D) puts it, a tie on this subject matter goes to the challenger. So that's the way to score tonight: Obama is looking for a clear win, and Romney is looking for a tie.

*** For Romney, the big threshold question -- ‘Can this guy be commander-in-chief’: This is a trickier debate for Romney than perhaps his campaign realizes (though they seem to be pretty aware of the challenge in this Politico piece). He has an easy game plan: hug many of Obama’s policies without embracing them completely. He has to try and send the message he won’t make much change without getting caught in the “Bush traps” on foreign policy. The country didn’t like Bush’s foreign policy; it’s why Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 and why Democrats trounced the GOP on all levels in 2008. But a lot of Romney’s advisers are veterans of the Bush years. How much can Romney separate himself? The president has big advantages in this debate if he doesn’t end up on the defensive too much on Libya. As commander-in-chief, he has the unique advantage of being able to say “I meet the families” of the fallen, like he did in Debate 2 very effectively. But for the president to “win” this confrontation tonight, he has to avoid Romney hugging him too much. The bottom line: if this debate is a draw, it may be a “win” for Romney because many viewers will watch with a simple question in mind: Can this guy be commander-in-chief? And for the war weary, they’ll want to know just what criteria will be used to get the U.S. involved in military conflicts. If Obama isn’t able to make sure there are clear differences in how each would conduct foreign policy, then it’s a missed opportunity

*** How the two sides will go after each other tonight -- Obama on Afghanistan, Iraq…: The Obama campaign is out with an ad hitting Romney on foreign policy and a blistering memo penned by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA). The ad focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan. Here’s the script: “A decade of war that cost us dearly. And now for president – a clear choice. President Obama ended the Iraq war. Mitt Romney Romney would have left 30,000 troops there and called bringing them home ‘tragic’. Obama’s brought 30,000 soldiers back from Afghanistan and has a responsible plan to end the war. Romney calls it Obama’s ‘biggest mistake.’ It’s time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding here.” Kerry’s memo is hotly critical. Romney, he writes, “offers nothing but endless bluster and a record of dangerous blunders, failing at every turn to show he’s up to the challenge. In fact, Governor Romney has outlined fewer specific policies for how he would lead on national security issues than any presidential candidate in my memory.” He calls him an “extreme and expedient candidate who lacks the judgment and vision so vital for the Oval Office….” And he outlines six questions for Romney to answer on Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iran, working with other countries, China, and Libya.

*** …Romney focus on Iran: Meanwhile, the Romney campaign is out with a press release of it own called, “We can’t afford four more years of Obama’s foreign policy.” It cites the president’s handling of Iran, his policy toward Russia and China, as well as veterans’ care. Signaling its hit tonight, it clips this September Reuters piece: “Obama's early overtures to Iran were rejected, and the expansion of Tehran's nuclear program, which it says is purely peaceful, has created tension between Washington and Israel.” Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor, asked on TODAY about the New York Times story that the White House could sit down for bilateral talks (which the White House officially denies), he said Romney wouldn’t rule out negotiations. Romney’s “not going to rule anything out,” Senor said. But Romney believes “he’d be the better guy at the negotiating table.”

*** NBC’s Brian Williams goes behind the scenes of the Obama campaign: After the debate, NBC’s Brian Williams will follow President Obama on the campaign trail behind the scenes and interview the president on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy and gridlock in Washington. Excerpts of the footage and interviews will air Wednesday and Thursday on Nightly News, Today, and Rock Center.

*** On the trail: The candidates are down ahead of tonight’s debate at Lynne University in Boca Raton, FL. It is scheduled to go from 9:00 pm ET to 10:30 pm ET. The candidates will be seated, and the debate will be moderated by CBS’s Bob Schieffer. The vice-presidential candidates are on the trail – Joe Biden campaigns in Canton, OH (the home of the pro-football Hall of Fame) at 11:30 am ET, then Lorain, OH,  at 3:15 pm ET … Paul Ryan campaigns in Colorado – at 1:00 pm ET in Pueblo West, 4:35 pm ET in Durango, 8:00 pm ET in Grand Junction. … First Lady Michelle Obama campaigns at Broward College in Davie, FL, at 3:00 pm ET … Jill Biden campaigns in Madison, WI, at 9:10 am ET, Appleton, WI, at 11:30 am ET. Also on the trail for Romney – Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) at noon ET in Hialeh, FL … And Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes four stops in Nevada at 11:15 am ET (Fernley), 1:00 pm ET (Fallon), 3:00 pm ET (Yerington), 5:30 pm ET (Carson City).

Countdown to Election Day: 15 days

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