WASHINGTON — He's a smug, Harvard-trained elitist who doesn't get how regular Americans are struggling these days. More extreme than he lets on, he's keeping his true agenda hidden until after Election Day. He's clueless about fixing the economy, over his head on foreign policy. Who is he?
Your answer will help decide the next president.
Is it Barack Obama, as seen by Mitt Romney? Or Romney, the way Obama depicts him? For all their liberal versus conservative differences, when the two presidential contenders describe each other, they sound like they're ragging on the same flawed guy. Or mirror images of that guy.
Will voters prefer the man waving with his left hand or his right?
Blame it on two cautious candidates with more traits in common than their disparate early biographies would suggest.
No Drama Obama is panned as professorial and aloof. Romney is deemed boring when he's not being awkward.
Distrusted as too moderate within his own party, each is demonized as a radical by the other side. They don't get specific about the tough stuff, like budget cuts or taxes, that would invite more precisely calibrated negative ads.
Add a presidential contest buried beneath a single issue, the economy, and original lines of attack are scarce. The candidates take jabs anyway.
"They're trying to define each other. That's what it's all about," said Ken Duberstein, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. "They're throwing out different characterizations to see which one resonates."
With quickie Internet videos and instant comebacks via Twitter, "the attack and counterattack is happening in real time," said political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson. "Campaigns are working to make sure nothing is missed."
Attacks big or small get batted back, even if the response amounts to "I know you are, what am I?"
Democrats accuse Republicans of a "war on women," Romney's campaign notes rising female unemployment during the Obama years.
The Obama camp jokes about Romney's dog riding on the roof of the family car; Republicans respond that Obama ate dog meat as a boy in Indonesia.
Both candidates are slammed as:
"Out of touch" with ordinary Americans.
Obama: Cloistered in the White House. Hangs out with celebrities, acting "cool." Doesn't understand the real world because "he spent too much time at Harvard," according to Romney, who earned two Harvard degrees himself.
Romney: Grew up wealthy, with a governor for a father. Worth $200 million or more. He's the kind of guy who had a Swiss bank account and wants a car elevator for his beach house, the Democrats note.
Bad for the middle class.
Obama: Failed to deliver on his promises to help Americans "struggling to find good jobs and make ends meet," the Romney camp says. Median household income is down, unemployment up since he took office.
Romney: Wants to reduce taxes on the wealthy while devastating Medicare and cutting education, health care and other programs the middle class need, Democrats charge. Obama says that amounts to "social Darwinism."
Obama: Believing his microphone off, assured the Russian president he would have "more flexibility" after Election Day. Obama will reveal "his true positions only after the election is over," Romney says. Republicans predict he would tack left on the environment, spending, gay rights and other issues.
Romney: Told campaign donors of plans to cut or eliminate the housing and education agencies as well as others – ideas he hasn't disclosed publicly. "What's Mitt hiding?" Democrats ask, demanding more about his personal tax returns and investments, too.
Obama: Hopes to create "a European-style social welfare state," Romney says, and "put free enterprise on trial." Endorsing Romney, Newt Gingrich called Obama "the most radical, leftist president in American history."
Romney: Referred to himself as "severely conservative." He's "extreme on women's issues," Democrats contend. Obama places him to the right of Reagan and suggests he's akin to Barry Goldwater.
Unable to fix the economy.
Obama: Can't get the jobless rate below 8 percent. He "delayed the recovery and made it anemic," according to Romney, who says Obama lacks the private sector experience necessary to understand the economy.
Romney: As a venture capitalist, laid off workers and shipped jobs to Mexico, the Obama campaign says. Also created Massachusetts jobs more slowly than other governors of the time, Democrats note.
Not up to foreign policy.
Obama: Too weak to stand up to China or Russia or to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and too eager to apologize for the United States, Romney charges.
Romney: Likely to stumble into another misguided war, according to Vice President Joe Biden. Wouldn't have had the guts to send Navy SEALs into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden, the Obama campaign suggests.