"Unless Kerry could win that fight [on keeping the country safe], it was always going to be very, very difficult to win," said Russ Schriefer, a senior strategist in the Romney campaign. In this campaign, he added, "President Obama is on the wrong side of the [economic] issue."
Romney came out of his convention having made small gains in his overall favorability rating as well as his standing overall with women, but advisers said they need to make further inroads in those areas.
The Romney team thinks their candidate survived the Obama campaign's summer advertising onslaught, which focused negative attention on Romney's personal finances and his record at Bain Capital, the corporate buyout and venture capital firm he founded. With both conventions finished, Romney's advisers say the race will remain as it has for months: deadlocked.
Romney's team sees the three presidential debates as potential game-changing moments. For the first time in the campaign, Romney will be on equal footing with the president, and his advisers see that as perhaps his biggest opportunity to take control of the race. Romney is undergoing extensive preparation for the debates, taking three days off the campaign trail last week to practice with top advisers in Vermont.
"There are going to be moments in this campaign, like October 3rd, the first presidential debate, when people hit the pause button and reconsider the candidates," Romney pollster and strategist Neil Newhouse said. "That may not be the only moment. There may be other things that happen that cause those moments that are impossible right now to predict."
Romney's brain trust has long thought, however, that the race will hinge on how independent voters evaluate Obama's handling of the economy.
Romney advisers think they have made the case that Obama's policies have not led to a robust recovery but think they have more work to do to convince voters that Romney has a credible alternative economic plan.
"Nobody needs to be convinced really that we're not on the right track," said Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a leading Romney surrogate. "Now it's just bolstering the credibility of the Romney plan for the middle class, to get the independent voters understanding that this is a solid solution for bolstering the American dream for the middle class. I think that's the closing argument."
The Obama camp feels equally confident about its plan, particularly after the convention in Charlotte. Speeches by first lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton drew positive reviews, even from many Republican strategists. Reviews of Obama's speech were much more mixed, with many saying it was far from his most memorable address.
Obama advisers, however, say the president's speech accomplished virtually everything they were hoping for, both in energizing the base and in delivering the right messages and reassurances to voters still making up their minds. A senior Obama adviser said that based on the research the campaign did Thursday night, Obama's speech received higher marks than did Romney's a week earlier.
But the president got a fresh dose of reality Friday morning when the government reported that the economy added just 96,000 jobs in August, fewer than had been forecast. The unemployment rate ticked down from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent, but largely because many people stopped looking for work.
Romney's team says those numbers will be a further reminder to voters that Obama's policies aren't working.
Axelrod said the latest report will not create further problems for the president. "I think people are realistic about where we are," he said. "They know we're in a long, hard march. ... That's not the issue. The question is where we go from here."
That was the focus of the past two weeks, as first Romney and then Obama made their cases about who has the plan and the values to help the middle class. The next big moment in the campaign will come on Oct. 3, when Obama and Romney meet in Denver for the first of their three debates.
But September also may help to reshape the race. The current phase has begun with new ads and a punishing pace for the candidates. Whoever can capitalize most on this post-convention period could gain an advantage before those debates begin.
As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin noted, "There's a lot of history behind these [next] three weeks being pretty crucial."