As I’ve noted before, Republicans often seem conflicted about which version of President Obama they should be attacking. Mitt Romney’s original theory was that he could paint Obama (the Good Obama) as a nice family man who’s in over his head on the economy; Romney’s aura of competence would be enough to persuade voters to pick him as an alternative. But Obama held a persistent lead in the face of months of criticism on the economy. So Romney shifted into a harsher resentment-based message to appeal to blue collar whites and maximize his white vote share, suggesting Obama (the Bad Obama) disdains their hard work and wants to redistribute what’s rightfully theirs downward to others.

The problem with an overly negative approach is that it risks a backlash among voters who like the President. And so, as Jim Rutenberg reports this morning in a must read, Romney strategists are well aware of the difficult balance they need to strike, and are working to get it just right in the home stretch. Romney’s brain trust thinks voters are reluctant to break from Obama because his initial victory felt historically transformative, and that they need to give voters a way to feel emotionally okay about ending their relationship with him:

The sort of visceral attacks that conservative talk show hosts are calling for risk sending them into a defense posture on behalf of Mr. Obama and, more to the point, of their own decisions four years ago.

Rather, strategists say, it requires providing a path that gives them permission to make a break. They need to be told that it is O.K. to remain proud of their initial support for Mr. Obama, but that they can be equally at peace with a decision to change their minds now.
“There is no need to make people feel bad about what they’ve done to feel good about what they’re going to do,” said Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney

Romney’s speech tried to strike this balance; there were some red meat attacks on the Bad Obama but also testimonials to the historic nature of his victory and the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger suggestion that we’ve shown enough patience for Obama and it’s okay to turn the page now.

What’s particularly striking is the Romney camp’s view of this in such overly emotional terms, as if the undecided voter is like your high school daughter you’re trying to persuade to break up with a decent local guy who just isn’t going places. Romney advisers seem incapable of imagining that there are substantive reasons these voters might be sticking (at least for now) with Obama over him.

And this goes to a fundamental distinction that’s central to this race: The question of whether undecided and persuadable voters think Obama failed, or whether they are merely disappointed with the pace of the recovery but find it understandable, given the circumstances, that he has been unable to improve things faster. Judging by Rutenberg’s story, the Romney camp operates from the assumption that voters have concluded Obama is an abject failure but don’t want to part ways with him because it would make them feel guilty. This assumption is what has led Romney to adopt a strategy of being as vague as possible in hopes of making the race a referendum on the president; surely voters who have decided Obama has failed just need time to get used to the idea of dumping him, and won’t be too picky about the alternative Romney is offering

But persuadable voters may be taking a more nuanced view of the economy and this presidency. Perhaps they are no longer sure how much a president can do to fix the economy; they understand the depth of the crisis and of our underlying problems; they disapprove of the pace of the recovery but understand Obama faced relentless partisan opposition and haven’t concluded Obama’s approach is discredited. They actually agree with his basic priorities and governing goals in key areas, and they are open to the argument that Romney’s approach is not the solution to their problems. The simplistic Obama-as-abject-failure formulation may be a misreading of voter perceptions and of why some are remaining with Obama, and may hamper the Romney camp’s ability to make a stronger affirmative case for his alternative.

* Explaining the “persuadable” voter: This helps explain the above: A new Post/ABC News poll finds that nearly a quarter of voters may be persuadable. The definition of what makes a voter persuadable is key: They are “less apt to be ideologically committed ones, and more likely to take middle-ground rather than strongly held positions on issues such as Obama’s job performance...”

The Romney camp operates from the assumption that everyone has decided Obama has failed — a view the base is ideologically committed to — and they just need to be wooed away.

*Obama campaign to escalate attacks on Romney’s dishonesty: David Axelrod tells Jackie Calmes that the Obama campaign is about to launch a new offensive designed to focus squarely on the volume of falsehoods and distortions that have flowed from the Romney campaign lately. Axelrod claims that the Romney camp has explicitly adopted “mendacity as a campaign strategy,” and will begin highlighting this in a more aggressive way to raise questions about Romney’s character.

The Obama camp presumably is doing this in part to prod the press corps into holding Romney accountable more effectively for his falsehoods, but you have to wonder whether this will make that less likely. Media figures may worry they will appear to be doing the bidding of the Obama camp if they get too aggressive in calling Romney out.

* Longtime observer says Romney’s lying is unprecedented: In the above link, this quote from Thomas Mann is important:

“The Romney campaign has, as is strikingly evident at the Tampa convention, broken new ground in its brazen and cynical disregard for the truth.”

This isn’t some whacked out liberal blogger talking; it’s a well respected scholar who has observed the political scene for decades, so it’s good to hear him say aloud that what we’re seeing is unprecedented. Of course, Mann wrote that book making the audacious claim that, yes, the GOP is far more to blame for what’s gone wrong in Washington, so perhaps his new critique will just get dismissed as partisan.

* Romney speech attacked the “good” Obama: Keeping in mind my lead item above, Jonathan Chait has a good take on which Obama Romney was attacking last night:

Romney’s other dogged political obstacle is that most Americans recognize the obstacles Obama has faced — the economic crisis, and rabidly partisan opposition. Romney attempted to disarm this by acknowledging the bad hand, but implying Republicans wished Obama well. The GOP as a whole “wanted Obama to succeed,” he said, adding that he personally shared this wish, making Obama’s failure to eradicate the impact of the crisis entirely his own fault. In reality, Republicans planned from before Obama took office to withhold cooperation and thus regain their majority, and Romney himself was obviously running to defeat Obama the entire period.

* Romney’s theory of why Obama failed: As Ezra Klein notes, it’s hard to make the case that business experience is essential in a president after picking someone with no business experience to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Also note the contrast between the lack of policy specifics in his speech with the detail Obama offered in 2008 (the right’s mythology, of course, is that Obama ran on nothing but hope and change).

* Digging into the distortions in Romney’s speech: Glenn Kessler has a good roundup; many of them have already been debunked but continue to get repeated by Romney anyway. Romney’s actually seemed to dial back the mendacity a bit; there was no welfare lie, for instance, which is telling, since that one has taken the most hits from the media.

* Romney’s “just trust me” campaign on display again: Steve Benen on how Romney’s speech pushed the boundaries of the “just trust me” strategy, and on the calculations underlying it.

* Romney’s speech light on specifics: I find myself much in agreement with Mark Halperin: The speech was good on the personal stuff and had some attention grabbing lines in it; but the negativity about Obama was heavy handed and he didn’t make a detailed enough affirmative case for what he’d do as president.

* Up-is-downism on Medicare: Paul Krugman notes that, yes, the Romney/Ryan ticket really would end Medicare’s core mission over time, but they are doing an excellent job of spinning the media otherwise:

The question now is whether voters will understand what’s really going on (which depends to a large extent on whether the news media do their jobs). Mr. Ryan and his party are betting that they can bluster their way through this, pretending that they are the real defenders of Medicare even as they work to kill it. Will they get away with it?

Yes, they may, and again, what precedent would getting elected via this level of mendacity set?