The endless presidential preliminaries are finally ended. The three presidential debates are the last remaining milestones between now and November 6, dotting an angry ocean of negative advertising. Here are a five things to watch over the next seven-and-a-half weeks:
Medicare talk. Both sides have engaged on the Medicare issue with apparent relish. Republicans are rerunning their 2010 plays, hammering Democrats for $716 billion in spending reductions in the program from Obamacare. Democrats point out that the law, as President Bill Clinton put it in his Charlotte speech, "cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that weren't making people any healthier and were not necessary to get the providers to provide the service." And then Obama used the money to fill the Medicare drug program's donut hole. Democrats also fire back that GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget keeps those same savings ("it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did," Clinton quipped).
Democrats were especially pleased that Ryan was added to the ticket because while the Ryan budget would transform Medicare into a vouchercare program, they had been having trouble making that case. "What we were struggling with over the last year is we were crying, 'Medicare! Medicare! Medicare!' and—we found this in our research—it hadn't really clicked," says Robby Mook, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now, he adds, "there's a name and a person that we can point to that people recognize and this is really a fundamental difference." As House Democrats get traction tying their opponents to the Ryan budget, it can only inure to the benefit of the top of the ticket.
The bottom line: If one party tries to disengage from the Medicare issue it will be the kind of white flag that signals tough times for their candidates up and down the ballot.
Follow the money. When the Romney campaign announced after the Democratic convention that they were launching an ad blitz in nine states, the places where they weren't running ads were as important as the ones they were. Absent from the post-convention advertising surge were Pennsylvania and Michigan, blue states the Romney campaign had hoped to move out of the Obama column. If Team Romney's going dark there now it's a sign that they feel both states are out of reach. Another sign: The "super PACs" on each side have pulled out of the Keystone State. Keep an eye on where the campaigns and their allies are spending, or not spending, their campaign dollars and watch which states drop off the competitive map.
Talking points. The premise of the Romney campaign has been simple: Barack Obama has mishandled the economy; Mitt Romney knows the secret formula for job creation. He has driven that message, with slight variations in whether he characterizes Obama as being outright un-American or merely ineffectual, for most of the campaign. But last weekend he swore that he would not "take God off our coins," a reference to the half-day story regarding the Democrats removing the word God from their platform (and then restoring it, on the orders of the president) and illustrates drift in the Romney campaign focus. "It's not that Romney has abandoned his focus on the economy as the paramount issue of the campaign," writes Time's Alex Altman. "But over the past few months, both in television ads and remarks to partisan audiences, the cool emphasis on his Mr. Fix-It business credentials have increasingly jockeyed for space with hot-button, base-mobilizing rhetoric."
Then he stumbled badly trying to pick a political fight over foreign policy, an area polls show Obama has a solid lead.
It's not a good sign when a candidate has to increase the pitches to his base as the general election nears; and it's also not a good sign when a candidate is muddling his own main message with eight weeks to go. Keep an eye on the extent to which Romney keeps focused on the economy or increasingly grabs for other talking points—if he's not talking about the economy, he's not going to win.