He outdebated a sitting president famous for his eloquence, and he followed up on that success with a highly effective closing pitch, coming into his own as a candidate at the moment when it mattered most. The pivots he’s made, the lines he’s tried out, the appeals he’s offered — yes, they could have been made earlier in the season, and yes, they could have been wedded to a stronger policy message, but they were enough to pull him into a lead into the national polls in October, which is something that few challengers going up against a sitting president get to enjoy, and put him a position where victory has actually been within his reach.
Every losing presidential candidate probably believes that with a few breaks they could have won, but if Romney loses that will be truer for him that it was for Mondale or Dukakis or Dole or even John Kerry. Precisely because he has come so very close — leading in the national polls for two weeks, just a point or two off in the swing states he needs to win at various moments, lacking only some final hinge moment or stroke of luck — if he ultimately loses it’s hard to imagine him being remembered as dismissively as most failed contenders tend to be remembered. He won’t be eulogized as a beautiful loser like McGovern or Goldwater, remembered fondly by pundits and idea people on both sides of the aisle, but he also won’t become a punchline or a tragic figure or a “let’s forget that ever happened” kind of candidate. He’ll be in a class by himself — remembered, I suspect, the way everything in his background suggests he’d want to be remembered: As the man who outworked all his rivals, the losing nominee who left it all on the field, and the Republican who gave the once-untouchable Barack Obama the race of his political life.