1. Will this campaign be relentlessly negative to the end?
Isn't the answer already obvious? President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney have already spent $59 million to air more than 170,000 negative ads, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. And that doesn't include the handiwork of the super PACs, which are spending prodigiously and whose ads will be even more negative than those by the candidates.
In the estimation of John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who wrote a book about the value of negative ads, this campaign will be "the most negative since the advent of television." The reason: "Neither has a very solid vision about the future except, 'You don't want the other guy,' " Democratic strategist Rick Ridder said.
Not that there won't be some positive ads. The president used the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics to air a generally positive commercial. At some point, say Republican strategists, Romney will need to define himself more positively than he's done so far.
The candidates' advisers think that, however much voters decry the negativity, they watch and can be swayed by negative ads. The more you see an ad on television, the more you can assume the candidate behind it thinks it's working to his benefit. That's why the Obama attack ad featuring Romney singing "America the Beautiful" is running constantly in swing-state markets.
What's interesting so far is that the barrage of negative ads hasn't changed the basic dynamics of the race. As the 100-day clock starts to tick down, the race is still very much within the margin of error and neither side expects that to change much.
This is the next big moment for Romney. Once he returns from his overseas trip, vice presidential speculation will become the dominant theme of the campaign coverage until a decision is announced.
2. Will Romney's choice of a vice presidential running mate make any difference?
In the short term, Romney's decision will be important. His choice will say something about Romney and what message he wants to send about his candidacy. The process of picking the running mate will be the first thing he does that will be looked at in the context of presidential decision making.
But what impact will it have? Would Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio deliver his state in November? Would former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty put his state in play -- or help elsewhere in the upper Midwest? Would Sen. Marco Rubio energize non-Cuban Hispanic voters in Florida and beyond? Is an out-of-box pick too risky after Sarah Palin?
William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, said the likeliest way Romney's choice could make a difference is if he picks someone widely judged not to be ready to become president. Picking someone to help with a particular group of voters, he said, likely would fall flat. A swing-state running mate, however, might add votes in that state.
But in the end, Romney's choice might not make much difference. Mayer believes that Dan Quayle cost George H.W. Bush votes in 1988, but if a troubled introduction of a vice presidential running mate mattered, Bush wouldn't have been elected that year.
3. Is the president hostage to the economic news between now and November?
Saying the president is hostage to the economic news may be too strong, but the weak economy is a main reason Romney has a chance to win and there's little Obama can do to change the trajectory.
Friday's report showing that gross domestic product grew at a rate of just 1.5 percent in the second quarter followed a June jobs report showing the third straight month with fewer than 100,000 jobs added to the workforce. Another jobs report is coming at the end of the week.
Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, argues that Obama is tied to what has already happened this year. Voters' perceptions about the economy, she said, become baked by the end of the second quarter. That's bad news for the president, which is why Republican strategists such as Whit Ayers and Jon McHenry argue that "if the news doesn't get better by November, Obama doesn't win."
The economy isn't the only thing that will decide the election, but it's difficult to point to anything more important. It's the central tenet of Romney's candidacy and the reason Romney advisers remain confident that he will prevail in November, despite some of the problems he's had the past month.
In the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Romney gets higher ratings on fixing the economy. The latest ad from the Republican National Committee is a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger appeal to voters to get rid of the president. That ad ends with the line, "He tried. You tried. It's okay to make a change."
As Doug Rivers of Stanford University put it, the economy is "neither so bad that Obama is sure to lose nor so good that Obama is sure to win."
4. Do Romney's wealth and business record make him more or less electable?
You'll get more debate about this than almost anything else about the campaign, much of it colored by partisanship. Republicans think that, in the end, Romney's business rsum is a plus and his wealth won't be held against him. Democrats think the combination could be decisive in keeping the president in office.
"Romney doesn't seem capable of feeling people's pain," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. "His work at Bain is a huge disability," added Steve Rosenthal, another Democratic strategist with longtime ties to the labor movement. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said the way Romney has dealt with his wealth "is a negative in terms of being in touch."
Republicans disagree. "It definitely makes him more electable," said Hogan Gidley, a GOP strategist. Steve Grubbs, an Iowa Republican strategist, said Romney's business background, "will be a benefit no matter how much the president's team tries to trash it."
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, said that, on balance given the polarized electorate, "it will mainly reinforce the views of each party's base -- Republicans like it, Democrats don't."
Obama's campaign has pummeled Romney over his work at Bain Capital. The president's advisers are convinced the attacks are eroding Romney's image in the swing states. Romney advisers think dissatisfaction with the president and the economy will trump those attacks in the end.
But even a number of Republicans say Romney has to make a more effective case on behalf of his business record -- and show more empathy as a candidate -- to offset the Democrats' attacks.
5. With the conventions back-to back, will either candidate get a real bounce in the polls?
The conventions will be held on consecutive weeks: Republicans in Tampa starting Aug. 27, Democrats starting a week later in Charlotte. Romney has the most at stake, the most work to do, and the biggest potential gain.
Conventions are anachronistic but still important. They're anachronistic because they lack drama, excitement or suspense. All the significant decisions have been made in advance, and the two nominees control all events and script them down to the minute.
But they are still important for many of the same reasons. Candidates can present themselves to the voters largely unfiltered. They write the script as they see fit. They tell the story the way they want it told. That sounds simple, but it isn't.
Some past conventions have changed the course of campaigns. In 1992, Bill Clinton was running third behind George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot the month before his convention but came roaring out of his convention ahead, thanks in part to Perot's unexpected decision to drop out of the race. George H.W. Bush helped turn around his campaign in 1988 with his "Read my lips, no new taxes" acceptance speech.
Republicans think that a successful convention will launch Romney into the final two months of campaigning. Democrats argue that Obama, by going second, will be able to rebut what happens in Tampa. But neither side expects lasting changes in the polls from the conventions.
6. Which campaign is likely to have the advantage in money?
When the campaign started, few thought Obama could be outspent by his Republican opponent. Lately, his campaign has been rattling the tin cup, singing a tale of woe about what Romney and the Republicans will do. The truth is, neither side will be short on money.
The president raised about $800 million in 2008 and will have about the same this year. Romney came out of the primaries with his campaign bank account nearly depleted, but he and the Republican National Committee have been raising money at a prodigious clip since then -- faster than Obama and the Democrats.
There is so much money sloshing through this election that voters in the most contested states will be saturated with ads, phone calls, mail and knocks on the door. With the electorate already polarized, this amounts to too much money chasing too few voters.
Republican super PACs potentially give Romney the advantage -- and give the Obama team nightmares. "This may be a decisive factor in the election," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. "The president and his team will not be able to outspend Romney like they outspent McCain. That by itself will make this election a lot more like 2000 and 2004."
7. How important are the debates likely to be this year?
That depends on whether you think debates ever really matter. They certainly mattered during the Republican nomination contest in the winter. Those 20 debates shaped the campaign and the fortunes of many of the candidates. Think Rick Perry.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan used his debate against Jimmy Carter to turn the election decisively in his direction. But some scholars say debates matter less than people think. "There just isn't much evidence that debates move the polls, or that any movement is truly consequential for who wins the race," said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Still, no one will be preparing for the debates as if they aren't potential turning points. In a close election, every encounter carries opportunities and risks. Bombarded by ads, voters may be looking for another way to evaluate Obama and Romney. "The three televised debates afford the only chance for undecided voters to do some unvarnished, unfiltered comparison shopping," said Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution.
The first debate will be on Oct. 3 in Denver, the last on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Both candidates have shown strong debating skills. For Romney, the debates offer the chance to close the stature gap with an incumbent president. For Obama, they provide an opportunity to impress on voters that the election is a choice, not a referendum.
Decisive or not, the debates will dominate October.
8. Which groups of voters do the two campaigns care about most?
Mobilizing their bases will be the first priority for Obama and Romney. With so few truly undecided voters available this year, turning out committed supporters becomes as important as persuading those still wavering.
For Obama, that means making sure he gets huge turnout again among African Americans (his advisers are confident that he will), that he motivates Hispanics to come out in big numbers and wins at least 65 percent of their votes. His biggest challenge is likely to be among young voters, who were so enthusiastic four years ago and aren't so engaged this year.
Romney needs the conservative base of his party motivated. Though he sometimes struggled with some of these voters, particularly evangelical Christians, in the primaries, all signs suggest that their deep dislike of the president will be enough to get them to the polls. Romney also needs a big vote among white non-college voters, particularly men. They don't much like the president, but if the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney's business record stick, some of them might not vote for the challenger.
Many strategists outside the campaigns say women could hold the key to victory in November. In general, Obama will do better among unmarried women, while Romney will do better among married women. But there will be a real battle over independent women, particularly suburban mothers.
Of course, not all voters will be treated equally. Based on where advertising dollars are being spent, most of the attention will be focused on voters in fewer than 10 states.
By Dan Balz