If you predicted that the highlights of the recent political conventions would be named Clinton and Clint, buy a lottery ticket. Now.

Should Barack Obama win in November, historians will be able to point to the precise day when his campaign began to separate from Mitt Romney and the Republicans: Sept. 5, 2012, when Bill Clinton took the stage in Charlotte to address the Democratic convention.

Say what you will about Clinton’s failings, and he’s had plenty, but that guy can deliver a speech. His was the highest rated speech of both conventions and it wasn’t close. Fifty-two percent of independents rated it excellent or good, compared to numbers in the 30s for the presidential candidates, according to Gallup. The day after Clinton’s speech, Obama’s daily tracking numbers jumped as much as 8 percent.

Republicans have an unexpected problem on their hands: Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in critical states every day from now to the election.

For months we’ve heard that this campaign is tight, although Obama maintains a slight lead overall and has led in most of the eight to 10 “battleground” states since midsummer. But time is already the enemy of Romney. In presidential campaigns there are really only three opportunities to fundamentally change the dynamics of the race: the conventions, the debates and the final push in targeted states.

The first opportunity for Republicans to overtake Obama is now behind us, and it didn’t go well. According to four major tracking polls, Republicans not only didn’t gain ground in the battle of conventions, they actually lost some, with Obama’s national lead growing from about 1 percent to as much as 5 percent.

That happened partly because 15 percent fewer Americans watched the Republican convention than the Democrat one, according to the Nielsen viewership surveys. Republicans were also noticeably better at self-inflicted wounds. Their high-risk move to put Clint Eastwood into a prime-time spot on their final night proved to be a costly distraction. Eastwood hadn’t figured out what he was going to say until he walked on stage, and it showed. His rambling stream-of-consciousness pushed a long-planned and essential humanizing video of Romney out of prime time. In subsequent polling, more viewers thought Eastwood was the “highlight” of the convention (20 percent) than Romney (17 percent).

Finally, Democrats had better speakers overall. According to Gallup and other polling firms, the top Democratic speakers all rated higher than their Republican counterparts.

Next up are the debates. I’ll leave it to others to wave the pom-poms on Romney’s debating skills, but Republicans have been underestimating Obama for months and they do so at their peril. Like him or not, Obama is tough, articulate and smart — and he doesn’t come across as calculating or fake. If Romney has to win this election by pummeling Obama in the debates, his odds just got longer.

If the debates don’t shift the dynamics of the race, the end game will be Romney’s last hope, but his chances don’t seem to improve there. The Obama team has been putting far more money into ground operations in swing states for months. Democrats are now fired up and ready to go. On top of that, Republicans now have an unexpected matchup problem with surrogates.

The “ground game” in campaigns has two elements. One is the traditional literature drops, phone banks and sign waving. The other, perhaps equally important, is the surrogate battle. That is where famous people crisscross a state promoting their candidate and generating local press and enthusiasm. In a close election that will be decided in just a few states, surrogates and grassroots campaigning take on outsized importance.

The stars of the surrogate team for Republicans include Ann Romney and Chris Christie. Unfortunately, they are matched up against Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton. In a race that could be decided by a 1 or 2 percent margin, that’s advantage Democrats.

The real dilemma for Republicans, though, is Bill Clinton. With the highest favorability ratings he’s ever had, Clinton generates both large crowds and extensive press. He energizes the Democratic base and is one of the most persuasive speakers on the national stage, particularly with undecided, blue-collar white males. Clinton speaks to the middle, as he always has, and that’s where the votes are in the final weeks.

Who do Republicans put out there to match Clinton? George W. Bush? They’d rather we forget about him. Chris Christie or Paul Ryan? Very funny. That’s like playing rooks against queens.

All of this puts increasing pressure on Romney to decisively win the first debate on October 3rd, which is when he’ll have the largest national audience before Election Day. It can be done. Ronald Reagan did it and came from behind to win in 1980, but Romney hasn’t offered many signs that he’s the next great communicator.

Alan Caron is a lifelong Mainer, an independent Democrat, an author of “Reinventing Maine Government” and a supporter of Angus King. He can be reached at:

[email protected]