Mitt’s off for a fight with Barack Obama as Whitehouse race draws near

THE two US presidential hopefuls are squaring up, and it’s going to get dirty, writes Claire Prentice

THE phoney war is over; now the battle can commence. After a bruising nomination contest, Mitt Romney, the multi- millionaire Mormon businessman who believes he can manage America out of decline, is set to face off against President Barack Obama in November’s Presidential election.

In a country in which voters like to award the top job to a guy they’d like to have a beer with, this election year Americans have to choose between two men who don’t seem the beer drinking type. Obama and Romney may be on opposing political sides, but they share many similarities. Both candidates are even-tempered moderates within their parties who come from the decent, high-minded end of politics and prefer talking differences over to duking it out.

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But, with seven months to go until the election, the campaign will force the two men to put their gentlemanly instincts aside and fight dirty.

“The race is going to get down into the gutter pretty quick,” said Washington lobbyist Ed Rogers, a White House political adviser in the Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush administrations. “Romney is going to be carpetbagged by negative advertising by Obama. The campaign has got to go negative because Obama doesn’t have a record that he can boast about.”

A recent national poll put Obama ahead of Romney by 51 per cent to 44 per cent. But the President can’t afford to be complacent. Polls show that less than half of Americans approve of the way Obama is doing his job. Six out of ten think the country is on the “wrong track”. The recovery is still weak and 12.7 million Americans are unemployed. Obama will have to work hard to cast the election as a choice between two radically different visions of the future and not a referendum on his performance.

“Obama is going to have to distract voters from his economic record and avoid the question: ‘Are [ordinary Americans] better off than [they] were four years ago?’” said Rogers. “Elections tend to favour the incumbent, but Obama can’t take anything for granted.”

Regardless of who puts up the better fight, the economy will be the single most important issue this election. If the economy continues to recover, then Obama is likely to be re-elected. If it falters, slows or collapses, he will be in trouble.

The Obama campaign is working hard to portray Romney as a cold-hearted millionaire businessman who will slash spending on social programmes, harming the elderly, the poor and the middle class, while promoting policies which help the rich. Last week Obama and vice-president Joe Biden pointedly released their tax returns and called for Romney to reveal more about his tax status. Romney is hitting back by portraying Obama as an incompetent president who has driven the US economy into the ground with his reckless borrowing and spending.

Romney, who emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee after the conservative Christian Rick Santorum dropped out of the race last Tuesday, received an early boost last week after a Democratic operative said his wife Ann Romney “has never worked a day in her life”. Romney, who trails Obama among women voters, seized on the comment, and his campaigners accused Democrats of waging a “war on moms”. They also pointed out that Mrs Romney, who is a cancer survivor and suffers from multiple sclerosis, has raised five sons.

After months of taking hits from his own side, Romney will have to work hard to repair his battered image. In his attempt to win the nomination, he had to lurch to the right in a bid to appeal to the Republican base, forcing him to boast that he was “severely conservative”. It will now be difficult for him to move back towards the centre without alienating the right.

He needs to motivate the Republican base to come out and vote in order to win the election, but so far he has failed to ignite their passions, eliciting suspicion among them that he is not a true conservative. Many conservatives question the depth of Romney’s opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and government spending. Last week, Romney addressed the pro-gun ownership National Rifle Association, an arch conservative group which has previously had their doubts about him. Other key conservative organisations should expect a visit soon.

“The main threat to Romney is that the Republican base will sit on their hands and not work for him in the general election,” said Professor David King, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “He has got more than enough money to wage a fierce campaign battle, but, at the end of the day, you need boots on the ground, passionate fans who will campaign for you and turn out the vote.”

Romney may choose a running mate from the right of the party in an attempt to win over the doubters within his own party. At the same time, he needs to appeal to independent voters who will be crucial in this election.

It is, concedes one Republican Party insider, a “near-impossible” act to pull off. “I honestly don’t know how he’s going to do it, but he has to find a way to get both the Republican base and the independents on board to win this.”

His best option may be to keep his focus on economic issues with broad appeal. Supporters say that Romney has learned a lot since he made his first bid for the presidency in 2008. But he still faces many of the same challenges which forced him to drop out of the race back then: a perceived tendency to shift policy positions, inconsistent messages and doubts about his authenticity as a true conservative.

One of the biggest hits Romney took during the nomination battle was over an aide’s unguarded comment that he would “etch-a-sketch” his campaign after receiving the nomination. Now Romney’s campaign team will be hoping that the private equity tycoon can indeed replace the Romney portrayed in the nomination battle with a candidate who is more widely appealing.

Another challenge for the presumptive Republican nominee is his Mormon faith, a religion little understood by the electorate as a whole and viewed as a cult by many conservative Christians. “The fact that he is a Mormon is the big unspoken part of this campaign,” said Professor King. “It’s such a big part of who he is. He wasn’t just a member, he was a bishop, one of the most important Mormons in the USA. So not talking about it doesn’t allow him to appear genuine.”

Romney’s relatively liberal record as governor of solidly Democratic Massachusetts has turned off many within his own party and leaves him wide open to Democrat attacks. Under Romney’s governorship, Massachusetts ran a state-wide health care system which critics describe as “the model for Obamacare”. Obama’s campaign will exploit this while emphasising the popular perception of Romney as a “flip-flopper”, someone who changes his policy positions to suit the prevailing mood.

Perhaps more troubling still to the Romney campaign is the perception that he is elitist and out of touch with ordinary voters. It is an impression entirely of Romney’s own making after a string of gaffes like his statement that “I’m not concerned about the very poor”. On the stump, Romney has appeared stiff and struggled to make a personal connection with voters.

Last week, Obama mocked Romney’s use of the word “marvellous” to describe a stringent right-wing budget proposal; the message was that Romney was not just savagely right wing, but posh and out of touch.

“It’ll be tough for Romney to make the voters like him and to believe that he supports them and their values,” said Mark Rom, a political scientist at Georgetown University. “People have questions about Obama’s performance, but they like him.”

As the incumbent, Obama has an inbuilt advantage. Last time around, the fresh-faced young Democrat ran on the promise of hope and change. After three-and-a-half years in office, he looks older, greyer and thinner and the optimism he once represented has been burned off by the flat-lining economy and the muddle of the healthcare bill. In 2012, he will be judged on what he has achieved.

Democrats will stress Obama’s successes. By pumping billions of dollars of borrowed money into the economy, he arguably prevented the recession from turning into another Great Depression. He brought the Detroit car manufacturing industry back from the brink, stabilised the banks and authorised the killing of Osama bin Laden.

During the 2008 election, Obama ran a sophisticated ground operation and became the first ever US presidential candidate to exploit social media to reach out directly to young and first-time voters. Romney will have a lot of catching up to do to match the sophistication of Obama’s operation. But many of those who donated in record-breaking numbers and campaigned tirelessly for Obama four years ago have been left feeling disillusioned and disenchanted. Whether they will turn out for him again in significant numbers is one of the great unknowns of this campaign.

This time Obama has met his financial match in the deep-pocketed Romney whose personal wealth is estimated to be as much as $250 million and who has plenty of wealthy supporters.

“This will be a close race. It’s a fight for the 8 per cent of the country which is undecided,” said Rom. “A lot of the campaign will be about policy but, at the end of the day, people like to vote for someone they like and who they believe is like them.”

Washington DC’s image consultants can be guaranteed plenty of work between now and November. «