How will Mitt Romney differentiate his policies from those of George W. Bush tonight?

I noted here recently that Romney is caught in a trap. Americans don’t view the election as simply a referendum on Obama’s economic performance, because more blame the sluggish recovery on Bush and think we may be on track to recovery. This puts pressure on Romney to specify why his alternative would spark a faster recovery than Obama has. But Romney can’t be much more specific without reminding voters how much his policies resemble those of the aforementioned Bush, whom the public blames for the crisis in the first place.

Turns out new polling supports this notion. Politico reports that Obama is “winning the message war,” based on a new poll from the Dem firm Penn Schoen and Berland. The poll tested 24 leading Obama and Romney messages. And guess what: The two highest scoring messages turned out to be Obama messages describing Republican policies as a return to Bush economic policies.

The highest testing message was from Obama’s convention speech:

“I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China. After all that we’ve been through, I don’t believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand, or the laid-off construction worker keep his home. We have been there, we’ve tried that, and we’re not going back.”

The second highest testing message was this, from an Obama speech in Virginia:

“Top-down economics don’t work. This country doesn’t succeed when only the rich are getting richer. We succeed when folks at the top are doing well, but also when the middle class is doing well, and folks who are fighting to get into the middle are doing well; when more people have a chance to get ahead and live up to their God-given potential.”

Voters, then, are receptive to claims that electing a GOP president would turn the economic clock back to the trickle down Bush years. Romney deals with this by vaguely claiming his policies are new, and promising they will create 12 million new jobs. But it turns out this is one of the worst testing messages. This, from Romney, ranked dead last:

“The path I would take is bold new ideas to deal with an economy that’s very different than what we’ve experienced before. My choice will lead us on a path that will create 12 million new jobs and rising take-home pay.”

Some have argued Romney can get around the Bush problem by arguing that he represents a break from Bush’s fiscal policies, in the sense that Bush wasn’t serious about cutting spending (a frequent conservative anti-Bush refrain these days). But as Ed Kilgore notes, this won’t allow Romney to escape the similarity between his and Bush’s economic approaches, because, well, they are very similar when it comes to the argument that cutting high end taxes will magically spur growth and shared prosperity.

The bottom line is that these Republican economic ideas and policies just aren’t popular. Romney can try to stay vague, but as this new poll suggests, that doesn’t go over well. He can get more specific, but that makes it easier for Obama to point out that he does represent a return to Bush economics. And that does go over well. As noted here recently, specificity is not Romney’s friend, but neither is vagueness, and this new poll seems to confirm it. That’s Romney’s problem tonight.