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First Thoughts: Risks and rewards of playing prevent defense

The potential risks and rewards of playing prevent defense, especially when you’re tied… Why a foreign-policy debate might matter and why it might not… Highlighting the clash over the auto bailout; it’s all about Ohio… Unveiling our latest NBC battleground map… Obama’s latest TV ad… And Obama stumps in Florida and Ohio, while Romney hits Nevada and Colorado.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd recaps Monday's final debate and previews the next two weeks leading up to the election.

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Three weeks ago in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney was the one who was aggressive, while President Obama seemed to be playing it safe -- and, as it turned out, too safe. Last night here in the final debate before Election Day, those roles were reversed: It was Obama who was drawing the contrasts, who looked energized, and who was in control of the conversation. And it was Romney who was playing it safe and often trying to point out similarities rather than differences. Obama was the candidate with more to prove; Romney simply wanted to clear the bar on the minimum height. Using another sports analogy: As anyone who watches football can attest, prevent defenses sometimes work (because they’re designed to prevent a big play and a quick score) and sometimes they don’t (because the defense loses its aggression and appears flat footed). Romney and his campaign clearly made the calculated risk that, with their momentum in the polls, playing it safe was a wiser strategy. If a race is tied, do you really play prevent defense? Only if you believe the race trajectory favors you. And that’s what the Romney campaign believes.

Slideshow: On the trail

*** Why a foreign-policy debate might matter and why it might not: But will last night matter? On the one hand, the subject matter was foreign policy (which has been Obama’s strong suit and Romney’s weak one), and the outcome shouldn’t have been too surprising given that Obama is the incumbent president and that Romney is a former one-term governor. On the other hand, look in our new national NBC/WSJ poll and see where Romney had made some of his biggest gains since the debate season began: He had narrowed the gap on who would be the better commander-in-chief from eight points (47% to 39%) to jut three (44%-41%). In addition, 53% of registered voters said they were comfortable with Romney being president, compared with 50% who said that about him before the debates and 56% who said that about Obama. Yes, foreign policy and national security aren’t the top issues in this election. But they matter when it comes to portraying strength and assessing if someone is prepared to be president. In that respect, last night helped the president and had the potential to hurt his challenger. What could save Romney? There are only two weeks left in the campaign. And given everything Obama has to do, making his affirmative closing argument, does the campaign have the time to two message tracks?

NBC's Chuck Todd reports that the third and final debate between President Obama and Governor Romney was a clash in styles, with an aggressive president met by an opponent who seemed to search for areas of agreement.

*** Clashing over the auto bailout: Yet perhaps the most significant exchange of the night wasn’t over foreign policy. Instead, it was about the auto bailout -- the very issue with which Obama hopes to win the battleground state of Ohio. Toward the end of the debate, the president blasted Romney on outsourcing jobs to China and for opposing the auto bailout. And the GOP presidential nominee responded only to the latter charge, one of the few times Romney took bait during the debate. “I'm a son of Detroit. I was born in Detroit. My dad was head of a car company. I like American cars. And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry. My plan to get the industry on its feet when it was in real trouble was not to start writing checks,” Romney said. “I said they need -- these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. And in that process, they can get government help and government guarantees.” Obama then countered, Romney, you keep on trying to … airbrush history here. You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies, even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace. That wasn't true.” Deciding to re-litigate the auto bailout with Obama was a calculated risk for Romney. He’s losing Ohio because of the bailout, period. In order to win Ohio, he has to convince skeptical working-class auto workers in places like Toledo and Akron that he would be there for the auto industry. It’s been a problem for him in Ohio for months. And guess where Obama and Biden are today: in Dayton and Toledo.

*** Latest NBC battleground map: Speaking of Ohio, here is our updated NBC battleground map with just two weeks until Election Day. The changes from our last map: We moved Nevada to Lean Dem; we moved North Carolina to Lean GOP; and we moved Iowa from Lean Dem to Toss-up. That puts 243 electoral votes in Obama’s column, 206 electoral votes in Romney’s, and 89 in Toss-up. Here are our seven remaining Toss-up states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And out of those, according to our conversations with the campaigns, you could argue that Obama holds a slight advantage in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, and Romney has a slight edge in Virginia. Here is the map:

Solid Dem (no chance at flip): DC, DE, HI, ME (3 EVs) MD, MA, NY, RI, VT (70 electoral votes)
Likely Dem (takes a landslide to flip): CA, CT, IL, WA (94)
Lean Dem: ME (1 EV) MI, MN, NV, NJ, NM, OR, PA (79)
Toss-up: CO, FL, IA, NH, OH, VA, WI (89)
Lean GOP: AZ, GA, IN, MO, NE (I EV), NC (64)
Likely GOP (takes a landslide to flip): AL, LA, MS, MT, ND, SC, SD, TX (79)
Solid GOP (no chance at flip): AK, AR, ID, KS, KY, NE (4 EVs) OK, TN, UT, WV, WY (63)

Remember, we base our battleground map on more than polls, but also where the campaigns believe the race is trending in specific states. Just because a candidate is advertising in a state, doesn’t mean they believe the state is headed in their direction.

Rick Wilking / AP

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens to President Barack Obama speak during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

*** Closing time: Appearing to respond to the criticism that the president hasn’t laid out a second-term agenda, the Obama campaign is up with a new 60-second TV ad where Obama looks to the camera and says, “Here’s my plan for the next four years: Making education and training a national priority; building on our manufacturing boom; boosting American-made energy; reducing the deficits responsibly by cutting where we can, and asking the wealthy to pay a little more. And ending the war in Afghanistan, so we can do some nation-building here at home.  That’s the right path.” This is what we’ve heard Obama would be doing in the final two weeks – more making the case why you should vote FOR him and vote AGAINST Romney. By the way, the ad will air in Colorado, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Romney has a new TV ad called “Apology Tour.”

As NBC's Chuck Todd reports, while it's true that the U.S. military doesn't count on bayonets as much as it did a century ago, the weapon is still "actively used" by the U.S. Marines, according to their web site, noting that the rifle attachment as a "weapon of choice when shots can't be fired."

*** On the trail: Obama campaigns in Delray Beach, FL at 10:15 am ET, in Dayton, OH (with Biden) at 3:50 pm ET…. Romney and Ryan hold joint rallies in Henderson, NV at 3:15 pm ET and Morrison, CO at 9:05 pm ET.

Countdown to Election Day: 14 days

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