The Republican's best bet is to paint the president as out of touch, weak on foreign policy, and bad for women, but Obama is fighting back.
Out of touch, waging a war on women, pursuing an "alarming" foreign policy, trying to "end Medicare as we know it."
President Obama must feel like he's gone through the looking glass to hear Mitt Romney leveling those charges against him -- after all, Romney is the former CEO with the $200 million fortune, whose party erupted in debate this year over the merits of contraception, prenatal testing and forced ultrasounds, whose hawkish foreign policy views include a threat to invade Iran, and who has endorsed conservative proposals to change Medicare from a government health program to one based on private insurance.
The script in these early days of the 2012 general election campaign carries echoes of 2004. Think George W. Bush -- who snagged a coveted spot in the National Guard rather than go to Vietnam -- winning reelection in part because his allies used Democrat John Kerry's military service to eviscerate his character. Kerry volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was respected for it until the well-financed "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth" came along and wrote the definitive chapter on how to turn your opponent's strength into a fatal vulnerability -- even if your own record on the same subject is weaker.
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Polls show Obama has an advantage over Romney on many fronts. That's at least partly the result of a primary process that did Romney no good. It is finally winding down, but he's starting the general-election campaign hobbled by his own missteps (repeated unforced reminders that he's a rich former boss) and rivals who damaged both him and the party brand with their attacks and preoccupations.
If Romney wants to win, he has little choice but to challenge Obama's hold on women, his claims on foreign and economic policy, even his personality -- and he's not entirely without ammunition. His suggestion that women were disproportionately hurt by the recession is off-base, but there's no question that women -- like men -- have suffered in the downturn. That means Romney may get mileage out of his charge that "this president has failed America's women" economically, and out of his promise of good jobs and higher incomes for women. Romney has also come up with a good riposte to the out-of-touch line of attack: "The person I'm out of touch with is Barack Obama." And he's right that Obama's health law tries new ways to control Medicare costs and cuts $500 billion out of Medicare over 10 years.
But you have to hand it to Obama and his team: Unlike some campaigns of the recent past, such as Kerry's, they are not sitting back and assuming their advantage will last. Instead they are moving very fast to try to cement the image of Romney that took hold in the primaries.
Swing-state independents might be turned off in November by an emphasis on fairness, as one survey has found. But the Obama campaign isn't focused on that now. Its first order of business is to tattoo "rich guy" on Romney's forehead and "party of the rich" on the GOP. The latest twist, part of a week-long buildup to a vote on the so-called Buffett rule (meant to that ensure billionaires don't pay lower rates than secretaries) is an online calculator to compare how much you pay in taxes to how much Romney pays.
Obama's foreign-policy achievements -- killing Osama bin Laden, ending the Iraq war -- are higher profile than his vulnerabilities. So that'll be a tough challenge for Romney, exacerbated by rookie mistakes like demanding that Obama release transcripts of private meetings with foreign leaders. As for Medicare, opinion polls, a 2011 special election and the relish Democrats show for talking about it suggest the issue could hurt Romney and the GOP more.
There is material for Romney to make an out-of-touch argument. Obama can be reserved and snappish, and he is more solitary than most politicians. Still, Obama scores higher than Romney on poll questions about likability and understanding people's problems. Obama was a scholarship student whose first rusty car cost $900 and who was paying off student loans for years. He can always pull out those stories -- and recently has -- when Romney starts talking about President Out-Of-Touch.
Romney has a pot-kettle problem on that front, given that he has two Harvard degrees to Obama's one. That isn't going to prevent a few months of hand-to-hand combat over what makes a person more detached from real life -- Air Force One and lots of money, or several houses and far more money. Best case: They fight that one to a draw and move on to the future of the economy.