The Romney camp has good reason to be confident. The polls are shifting its way. The electoral map is expanding, with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) traveling to Pennsylvania on Saturday, almost daring the Obama camp to do the same (and thereby signal the race is competitive there).
More than the polls and the travel schedule, the Obama message betrays a degree of panic. Always a small-ball affair, Obama’s vision has become microscopic as he launches into endless rounds of Big Bird, binders and contraception. They are throwing out childish phrases this way and that ( “Romnesia”) instead of making coherent arguments. Senior adviser Ed Gillespie, who took the Romney campaign by the scruff of the neck to straighten out a once-ragged operation, tells me by phone, “It is very diminishing of their campaign.” That’s charitable.
Meanwhile, the Romney ads have been redesigned to reinforce the momentum Romney gained in the debates. We see many ads with debate clips and others with Romney looking right at the camera.
The debates, not merely the first one, according to Gillespie, have been transformative. He tells me, “People saw Mitt Romney for who he is and not how he appears in the onslaught of 30-second attack ads and 10-second snippets on the news. What they saw in the debates didn’t match what they saw in those ads.” While the media saw the second debate as an Obama comeback, Gillespie says it actually helped Romney. “It added to his momentum.”
Is there any danger of overconfidence? Gillespie shoots back, “None.” At least on record, all the Romney advisers will insist the race will be tight down to the wire. In fact, it is quite possible that the race could tighten at the end. In the next 21 / 2 weeks Gillespie says, there is still plenty to do. “We need to make sure our voters vote and continue to persuade persuadable voters.” He continues, “We keep reinforcing the agenda and his personal qualities. He has a plan. They know he has a plan. They never get that from President Obama.”
In fact, even liberals are struck by Obama’s skimpy second term agenda. Gillespie says the president has intentionally kept things vague. He explains, “He has not told the American people what his second term agenda is.” He surmises, “He hasn’t said what he’ll do and what he’ll do different, but we already know what he’s going to do and it won’t be different. The debt would go up to $20 trillion. We know he’s going to raise taxes by $2 trillion. We know up to 20 million Americans could lose their employer health insurance. He’s going to raid Medicare for $716 million to pay for Obamacare. We know energy prices will go up. He just doesn’t want to say it because it’s bad for people.”
If Gillespie’s assessment is correct, then in a real sense the debate tomorrow is the last meaningful opportunity for Obama to shake up the race. However, he’s got several problems.
The most glaring problem for the president is Libya. A series of contradictory statements, not to mention denying adequate security to our diplomats, are threatening to overwhelm the president. His tone has been oddly off key. In response to Obama’s comment on the Daily Show that it isn’t “optimal” to have four Americans killed, the mother of a victim retorted, “My son is not very optimal — he is also very dead.” The Daily Mail reported: “Pat Smith, whose son Sean died in the raid, said: ‘It was a disrespectful thing to say and I don’t think it’s right. ‘How can you say somebody being killed is not very optimal? I don’t think the President has the right idea of the English language.’ ” Obama would do well to apologize tomorrow night.
In addition, should Obama try to play the aggressor in the debate, once again he may come across as testy and only compound his problems with female voters and independents. Given his own incompetence in Libya, he’s now limited in accusing Romney of not being ready for prime time. And given that al-Qaeda is certainly not extinguished, he will have to tone down his chest-thumping over Osama bin Laden’s assassination.
Finally, Obama still has an Israel problem. It is not simply Jewish voters in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania who are troubled by his treatment of Israel, but also non-Jewish voters who see Obama’s treatment of the Jewish state as a sign of disloyalty to a good friend of the U.S. Voters are increasingly aware of and concerned about the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. (“Support for taking ‘a firm stand’ with Iran over its nuclear program has inched up, rising from 50 percent in Pew’s January poll to 56 percent today, while sentiment about avoiding a military conflict with Iran dropped from 41 percent to 35 percent.”)
Even if Obama is able to hang onto the large majority of Jewish voters (a near certainty), Romney could well whittle away at that part of the electorate, which may be key in a close state race or two.
For now, Gillespie’s job on the campaign remains the same: Keeping the message sharp, avoiding unforced errors and responding to the daily attacks by an increasingly frantic Obama team. Finally, time and momentum are on his candidate’s side.