Long gone are the days of running a presidential campaign from the comfy confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
When Mitt Romney ignited a firestorm recently by questioning London's preparations for the Olympics, President Obama was quick to pronounce his "utmost confidence" in the security there. A day later, just before Romney landed in Israel, Obama was signing with much fanfare a U.S.-Israel security pact and expressing his support for the U.S. ally. When Obama went to Ohio last week, Romney already had a television ad up there criticizing the president.
Three months out from the election, it's clear that the shifting media landscape, the explosion of social networking and the high stakes of presidential politics have conspired to create a new sense of urgency on the campaign trail. Where once an incumbent president could sit at the White House and virtually ignore his opponent until well into the fall, the candidates today are engaged in a real-time battle, responding to accusations and charges within hours, if not minutes.
"If you're an incumbent and your polls are okay, you can afford to engage in a Rose Garden campaign," said Martin Medhurst, a presidential communications expert at Baylor University. "But if you're in a real tight race, you can't do that. Obama has to run as a challenger."
But Obama was initially so quick to go after Romney that conservatives began to complain that Romney wasn't responding fast enough. That's started to change. In addition to Romney's counter-offensive in Ohio, the Republican's campaign last week launched a rapid-response Twitter account to counter what it sees as false claims in Obama's advertising.
When Obama trumpeted a study that appeared to show that Romney's tax plan would benefit the rich and hurt the middle class, Romney's online handlers were quick to point out that one of the report's authors was a former Obama White House staffer.
But some analysts said that given the pace of the campaign, Romney does still occasionally appear out-gunned.
"Romney's communication staff has come close to malpractice," said Linda P. Schacht, a press official in former President Jimmy Carter's White House who now teaches political communications at Lipscomb University. "It appears Romney hasn't been prepared for the most obvious of questions. I just think they get caught flat-footed in areas where they shouldn't."
Romney seemed unprepared when questioned about why he won't release more of his tax returns. As a result, an issue that could have been neutralized during the GOP primary remains an albatross for the former Massachusetts governor at a time when undecided voters are starting to choose between the candidates.
And many questioned why Romney wasn't more explicit about whether he'd allow certain illegal immigrants to stay in the country -- as an Obama directive outlined -- or more specific about how he'd create jobs and lower the deficit.
But some wonder whether it's the voters who are the victims of the constant spitball match that has defined the 2012 race.
"People treat it all as a game, and I wish we were at a place where campaigns thought the American people were bright enough to understand the arguments based on facts," Schacht said. "They have not gotten us any closer to an informed electorate."