ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For Mitt Romney, this moment is a peak in a campaign that has had more than its fair share of valleys. During the Republican primary campaign, Romney suffered a number of close calls as the nomination and the presidency seemed about to slip through his fingers. The most recent of those close calls came just two weeks ago in Denver when Romney lagged far behind President Obama going into that first debate.
But once again, Mitt Romney pulled out a performance that silenced the naysayers. Now that the candidates are about to meet for another debate, the question is, can Romney perform just as well when he is no longer the underdog? NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In late January, things were looking grim for Mitt Romney. Political junkies all assumed he'd be the Republican presidential nominee, but then he lost Iowa to Rick Santorum by a few votes and Newt Gingrich buried him in South Carolina. The only state he managed to carry was New Hampshire, and the Romney family owns a house there.
Heavy clouds hung over the campaign as it entered the Sunshine State, then something surprising happened. The Mitt Romney who touched down in Florida, turned out to be a candidate nobody had seen before.
MITT ROMNEY: Eighty-eight percent of his Republicans voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich. He has not had a record of successful leadership.
SHAPIRO: The analytical businessman was gone, replaced by a scrappy fighter on the stump. And in debates, the Massachusetts governor who had floated above the fray took off the white gloves and bloodied his knuckles.
ROMNEY: If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, you're fired.
SHAPIRO: Newt Gingrich's lead in the polls disappeared and Romney won Florida. But the primaries weren't over. A month later, Mitt Romney started to flag again in his birth state of Michigan. Rick Santorum whipped crowds into a frenzy, while Romney described his economic policies to a nearly empty football stadium in Detroit.
ROMNEY: I guess we had a hard time finding a large enough place to meet and this certainly is.
SHAPIRO: At that same event, Romney took heat for saying his wife drives a couple of Cadillacs. So it was all the more surprising when the man who showed up in Kalamazoo a few hours later was relaxed, funny and more genuine than he'd seemed in months. He talked about his father's strange decision to buy a gravesite in the town of Brighton.
ROMNEY: Because we didn't live in Brighton. It's like, how did you pick Brighton, dad? Well, best price I could find in the whole state. So if you're looking for the best deal on a gravesite, check Brighton. They got a good spot and you're near the former governor and the former first lady.
SHAPIRO: In Michigan, Romney came through again. Finally, he arrived at the general election where soon enough, things started to go wrong. His vice presidential pick provided no bounce. The Republican convention was a muddle and a series of campaign gaffes made everything worse. Just two week ago, Mitt Romney walked into the first debate so far behind in polls that news organizations were already publishing premortems, explaining why he'd lost the race. But he hadn't lost yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
SHAPIRO: Once again, when the challenger was at his lowest, he performed at his highest. In that 90-minute debate, Mitt Romney erased President Obama's lead in polls.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
SHAPIRO: This moment now is different from Florida and Michigan. In those states, a short term sprint put Romney over the finish line. But now, there are still three weeks to go until Election Day. The polls are virtually tied. Romney is no longer a clear underdog and that puts the Republican candidate in a difficult spot, says Jennifer Donahue. She's a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
JENNIFER DONAHUE: Romney needs to stay hungry. They need to pretend they're 10 points behind even when they're not, especially in states where it matters, like Ohio. They have to fight like it's their last fight every day for the next month.
SHAPIRO: Romney campaign advisor Kevin Madden says that's the plan.
KEVIN MADDEN: There is a certain mental aspect to running like you are behind. If you do so, then you'll never take anything for granted.
SHAPIRO: Until now, Romney's grand slams have come when people are writing him off for dead. His challenge tonight is to do it again while he's very much alive and kicking. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.