Here is the state of the presidential race in a nutshell: The Obama campaign charges that Mitt Romney might have committed a felony by misrepresenting his position at Bain Capital to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Outraged, Romney fires off this response:

“He sure as heck ought to say he’s sorry.”

Ward Cleaver, call your office.

Not surprisingly, President Obama brushed off Romney’s request and continued to hammer him over the weekend. Obama is playing by the brass-knuckle rules of Chicago politics. Rather than calling for apologies, Romney needs grab a bottle, break it on the bar and start fighting back.

This may not come naturally to Romney, but we know he can do it. Recall that during the GOP primaries Romney initially followed a strategy of staying above the fray. Instead of trying to win, he waited for his opponents to lose. Romney focused on his business experience, while Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain imploded in sequential fashion.

But then in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich refused to follow suit. Like Obama today, he ran ads showing laid-off workers blasting Romney for cutting deals that cost them their jobs. Like Obama today, he demanded Romney release his tax returns and demanded to know what he was hiding. Romney absorbed blow after blow and failed to fight back — and as a result suffered a devastating defeat in the Palmetto state.

It was only when Romney realized his White House chances were fading that he finally took the mitts off and went on the offensive against Gingrich. He branded Gingrich an “influence peddler” who spent “15 years in Washington on K Street” advising clients like the discredited mortgage giant Freddie Mac. He declared Gingrich “erratic” and questioned his competence for the Oval Office. He defined Gingrich as a “failed leader” who resigned his speakership “in disgrace.” It worked. Romney won decisively in Florida, and went on the secure the GOP nomination — in large part because Republican voters finally saw a candidate who was willing to fight and who they believed could go toe-to-toe with Obama in the fall.

So where is that candidate today? Since securing the nomination, Romney has reverted to his old approach. Instead of trying to win, he seems to be waiting for Obama to lose. When the Supreme Court declared the individual mandate a tax, instead of barnstorming the country to hammer Obama for enacting a massive tax increase on the middle class, Romney went jet-skiing on Lake Winnipesaukee. While Romney has been largely running positive ads, Obama has spent nearly $100 million in battleground states on mostly negative ads about Romney’s tenure at Bain — declaring him a “pioneer of outsourcing” who is running for “outsourcer-in-chief.” Obama’s ad buy has dwarfed Romney’s by a margin of at least 4-1. Result: Only 18 percent of swing state voters see Romney’s business experience positively while 33 percent viewed it negatively. Obama is taking Romney’s greatest asset — his business experience — and turning it into a liability.

Not to worry, says Team Romney. They point out that despite the attacks, their candidate is running even with Obama in the polls and is out-fund-raising a sitting president by a significant margin.

The problem is: It shouldn’t be a tie. Obama is coming off of the worst three months of an incumbent president during an election year in recent memory. Consider the litany of blunders and bad news he has suffered — from his declaration that “the private sector is doing fine,” to his ugly fight with Catholic leaders over his Health and Human Services mandate, to the controversy over his intelligence leaks, to his decision to invoke executive privilege in the “Fast and Furious” scandal, to the string of bad jobs reports that show we are in the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Yet despite the endless stream of bad news, the president is running even with Romney. In fact, he’s gaining. Three months ago, Gallup had Romney with a five-point lead over the president; today, they are at 46-46.

Framed this way, the picture for Romney does not look so pretty.

Romney’s new ad declaring Obama a liar is a sign of life — but he’s still responding to attacks instead of launching them. The Post reports that Romney will fire a new salvo this week accusing the president of “crony capitalism” and contrasting “Obama’s political payoffs with middle class layoffs.” Said one adviser, “We’re turning the page.” Let’s hope so. We know Romney can brawl with the best of them; if he couldn’t, he would not be the GOP nominee today. The question is: Which Mitt Romney will we see over the next four months? The passive candidate who got trounced in South Carolina? Or the fighter who brawled his way to victory in Florida?