Mitt Romney's Identity Crisis

Voters still don't know who the Republican nominee is, and he's missing on the chance to define himself positively.


If President Obama's campaign machine can define Mitt Romney before his own campaign even tries, my bet is Obama wins reelection.

It seems the Romney campaign believes that any day or dollar spent talking about anything other than the economy is a day or dollar wasted. Unquestionably, the economy's state and direction, as well as voters' perceptions on Obama's handling of it -- are important. Obama's approval ratings on the subject are awful. According to the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of voters approve of the way Obama has handled the economy, while 53 percent disapprove. Additionally, just 31 percent think the country is headed in the right direction; and 61 percent believe it is on the wrong track. Voters seem quite willing to fire Obama as a result.

A willingness to fire the president, however, is only one step. Voters also have to be willing to hire Romney. If the challenger is deemed unacceptable, a potentially decisive slice of the electorate could reluctantly return to the incumbent. Voters' willingness to hire Romney is being severely damaged, at least in swing states, by the advertising efforts of the Obama campaign and Priorities USA, a pro-Obama super PAC. The ads are devastatingly tough, portraying the former Massachusetts governor as a private-equity version of Gordon Gekko, a heartless corporate barracuda who has made a fortune acquiring and looting companies, laying off workers, and ruining lives and communities. That's the story line, anyway. These ads lead to the conclusion that Romney is not to be trusted in the Oval Office.

Romney's tenure running Bain Capital, layoffs, outsourcing, and now his personal finances give Democrats plenty of great fodder. If you live in or visit a swing state and turn on a television set, you will be deluged by these ads. Maybe they are accurate and fair, maybe they aren't. Regardless, they are hard-hitting and running with great frequency.

What makes the ads effective is that voters know next to nothing about Romney, other than that he is a rich and successful businessman, and perhaps that he is a Mormon. Being quite rich and successful means -- and focus groups I've watched support the notion -- that more than a few voters may be willing to stipulate that Romney is a smart guy and probably knows a lot about the economy. But nothing the Romney campaign has said would give voters a reason to believe that he can be trusted or that Oval Office decisions in a Romney White House would be based on the same values that they want their president to have. The Obama campaign and Priorities USA are more than willing to fill in the blanks.

A pretty good case can be made that the daily headlines about depressing economic news and a tough job market -- whether for 50-year-olds who lost jobs or college grads trying to get a start -- drive the economic issue far better and more effectively than anything the Romney campaign can possibly do.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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