Adding to the notion that the State of the Union address was, in effect, a campaign speech, Obama departs Wednesday morning on a three-day swing to five competitive states — Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan — where he will no doubt turn up the heat on Republicans.
The timing of the address, coupled with Romney’s tax release, fits neatly into the Democrats’ effort to portray Romney as an out-of-touch corporate raider who seeks to shield Wall Street executives and other high-rollers from paying their share.
And it threatens to further weaken Romney’s argument to GOP primary voters that he would be the strongest general-election opponent for Obama.
That argument, after all, rested largely on polling data showing the former Massachusetts governor outpacing the president among crucial independent voters.
But in the hours before Obama’s speech, new data from the new Post-ABC poll suggested a shifting landscape: Independents were souring on Romney and feeling a bit better about Obama.
Even more telling, as Romney has spent much of the past two weeks defending his record at Bain Capital and battling over whether to release his tax records, he has lost ground among whites with incomes under $50,000 a year — a key target group that has long been skeptical of Obama and viewed as critical in battlegrounds such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The new survey found that Romney’s unfavorable rating in that group has spiked in the past two weeks, from 29 to 49 percent.
Obama has not improved markedly with those voters, underscoring the president’s persistent challenge with that group.
Democrats, though, see Obama’s speech as a pivotal opportunity to make inroads. The timing, following Romney’s stinging loss to Gingrich in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, makes the scene that much sweeter for the White House.
“When you own this economy, that’s a challenge,” conceded Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “But to get the gift of timing, that Obama can speak to the country while Romney is releasing his tax returns at an effective rate below 15 percent, is an amazing moment.”
Whether Obama’s good fortunes continue depends on many factors out of his control, most notably the economy.
And while Democrats see hope in the power of incumbency, Republicans have been laying plans to undercut that power, amassing a database of Obama’s past statements to use against him in local and national advertising. One ad released Tuesday by the Republican National Committee declared the state of the union to be “not better off,” a reference to an interview in which Obama conceded that many Americans were not doing better than they were four years ago.
“On the one hand, he’s got Air Force One, the Secret Service and a powerful entourage, and all that augers well for him,” said Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman who now heads the American Conservative Union. “But he’s also got three and a half years of baggage, and we think that’s pretty heavy.”
Republican strategists say this week’s events may well give the president a bump. But they point to surveys showing that independent voters remain skeptical of Obama on key issues, such as jobs, budget deficits and health care, and one GOP candidate’s rough patch does not mean much about what will happen in November.
Romney has “had a bad couple of weeks,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayers. “But what we know about independents is that they move around even more quickly than Republicans these days. And just because independents move one way after a bad couple of weeks tells you nothing about where they will end up.”
Polling director Jon Cohen and analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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