The 10 days between February 28 and March 8 were the most consequential of this US presidential election year. The contours of the race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump became exceptionally clear. Both Trump and Biden are dominant in their parties. Their next term as president is within reach – but neither has it in their grasp.

The election is not Biden’s to lose. He is losing.

The election is Trump’s to win if he can attract enough voters beyond the base he commands, who have lost confidence in Biden and who hear his “America First” siren song. The election is Trump’s to lose if his extremism and instability, and the avalanche of criminal trials, bury him before election day in November.

In the first weekend in March, the political class in Washington, and Democrats across the country, were staggered by the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. The voter-intention findings were unrelenting: Trump 48 per cent, Biden 43 per cent. Is the country on the wrong track? Sixty-five per cent said yes. How is the economy? Seven per cent said excellent, 51 per cent said poor. America’s macroeconomic numbers are terrific. Job creation is booming. Unemployment is low. Wages are outpacing inflation. But Biden gets no credit for it because prices are sky high and there is no relief yet on mortgages. The bounce Biden seeks from the economy’s stellar performance hinges on whether the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates more than once by November.

The president’s job approval is at an all-time low of 36 per cent, with 47 per cent strongly disapproving. His favourability is at 38 per cent and unfavourable at 59 per cent, decidedly inferior to Trump, who is at 43 per cent favourable and 54 per cent unfavourable. Eight months out from election day, where voting is voluntary, only 23 per cent of Democrats were enthusiastic about Biden. But 48 per cent of Republicans were enthusiastic that Trump was standing for election as president for a third time.

Age has haunted Biden for the past year. He is not as physically vigorous as he was in 2020. At 81, he walks old and talks old. If he were five years younger, there would be no age issue. But Biden is not Benjamin Button. A majority of voters who were for him in 2020 say he is now too old to be effective. Trump is only four years younger, but he overwhelms the rallies his base adore, speaking for 90 minutes with high-energy, provocative attacks.

Going into Super Tuesday, when approximately one-third of all delegates to the presidential nominating conventions can be won, Trump was riding high with the Supreme Court’s decision to hear his unprecedented argument that he is immune from criminal prosecution for any acts he made during his presidency. But when inaugurated as president, Trump solemnly swore to “faithfully execute the office of President” and to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution – not to faithfully violate that oath and be impeached twice. Trump will almost surely lose at the Supreme Court, but the schedule of arguments and issuing of a decision means that the most important criminal trial he faces – whether he acted illegally to overturn the 2020 election – may be delayed beyond the November election. That means he may avoid facing the electorate as a convicted felon.

The day before Super Tuesday, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, overruled Colorado and other states seeking, under the 14th Amendment, to remove Trump from the ballot because of his support for the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. After a year of indictments, with 91 felony charges pending against him, Trump was on a roll.

But on Super Tuesday, the limping Joe Biden outperformed the seemingly unstoppable Trump. Sixteen states voted in their party’s primaries. Of 5.8 million Democrat votes cast, Biden won 85 per cent, despite his age, the lack of enthusiasm for him among young voters, and growing concerns about the war in Gaza and Biden’s support for Israel.

Trump ended the presidential run of Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Haley started her campaign saying that the Republicans had to turn the page and face the future instead of constantly litigating the past. Her run ended with Haley saying that Trump was “unhinged” and “diminished”. Trump crushed her. But of nine million Republican votes cast, Trump garnered only 73.5 per cent. He continued to be confronted by persistent strength from Haley in key states: 30 per cent in Virginia, 30 per cent in Minnesota and 23 per cent in North Carolina. There were exit polls for GOP voters who said they won’t guarantee their vote for Trump: in North Carolina 35 per cent, Virginia 36 per cent, California 33 per cent.

Where these Haley voters go in November will be very important to the outcome. As Republicans, many will go back to Trump. Others, unable to vote for Biden, will stay home. Of the 25 to 30 per cent of Republicans Trump is not winning in the primaries, perhaps 10 per cent will cross over and vote for Biden.

But the issues keep cutting Trump’s way. The southern border with Mexico is out of control. Encounters with migrants – US Border Patrol terminology for either its expulsion or detainment of illegal migrants – are at a record high, with more than five million illegal crossings during Biden’s presidency. Immigration is the number-one issue of concern to voters.

Trump knows exactly how to push buttons with voters and has a consistent advantage over Biden in dealing with the top issues. On securing the border, Trump is 25 points ahead of Biden. More capable physically and mentally to be president: Trump +23. Managing the economy: Trump +22. Handling crime: Trump +21.

All of this was on the line for Biden when he delivered the State of the Union address. He had to show he was vigorous, focused and a champion for the American people – their future and their economic security. We have never heard an address like this: it was a campaign speech in the House of Representatives chamber, where he directly attacked a former president, his opponent, 13 times. He went after Trump for his attacks against democracy – attacks that have failed so far. Biden also demanded support for Ukraine, not only to save that country but to stop Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. “I won’t bow down,” he thundered.

Biden embraced the proven voting power of women and their rights to reproductive freedom, and admonished the justices of the Supreme Court sitting in front of him for taking those rights away. He was on a crusade for the middle class, and making corporates and their billionaire masters pay their fair share of taxes.

Thirty-two million tuned in, and the reviews were positive. Biden was channelling his inner Harry S. Truman who, in 1948, “gave ’em hell” and won a huge upset victory. The whole point was to reignite enthusiasm among those Democrat voters who have drifted away. We will see if Biden can keep doing what he needs to do to get his campaign moving. For now, Biden faces a huge deficit in the polls. But it’s hardly insurmountable with seven months to go. There will be surprises.

With a hat tip to Hunter S. Thompson, there is fear and loathing across the country on every issue – even Taylor Swift. Will Trump’s “Make America Great Again” crusade overwhelm Biden’s shield to protect America’s democracy?

Between them, whoever loses from their ranks of four years ago the least number of undecided, apathetic or alienated voters – that man will win.