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David Paul

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Forget Etch A Sketch and Vaginas, Obama Faces a Real Race in the Fall

Posted: 03/24/2012 5:06 pm

It is now over, perhaps someone will tell Rick and Calista.

This week, Jeb Bush quietly endorsed Mitt Romney -- silencing the quiet yearning of Republicans who for months have hoped that Bush might yet emerge through a brokered convention -- and Tea Party leader Jim DeMint urged Republicans to embrace him. For all the sturm und drang, the Republican party's imitation of a Democrat nominating fight seems to finally be over.

Further evidence of this emerging political reality could be seen in Santorum's increasingly shrill rhetoric. First, standing in the ashes of his Illinois primary defeat, Santorum sought to raise the stakes -- and the hyperbole -- when he suggested that this presidential race was "the most important election since the election of 1860."

Santorum seemed to lack any sense of irony in his comments. The notion that we are at a sesquicentennial moment -- that our liberty and freedom, our status as a unitary nation, are at a moment of transcendent risk -- might make one wonder why Santorum is the best his party could offer in such a moment. Such moments might call for yet another Bush, but despite his admirable passion for the cause, Santorum has failed to make the case beyond a narrow spectrum of the national electorate.

There has been a lot of gloating on MSNBC over the past few weeks, as the Republican kerfuffle seemed to push the Republican Party and its presumptive nominee out to the political fringes of the national polity. Just one week after the Republican trans-vaginal episode in Virginia, they seemed intent on getting decked out in full genitalia, as Santorum and Limbaugh insisted on adding contraception to the public debate.

This week it was Romney political strategist Eric Fehrnstrom's suggestion that his candidate would not be hurt by a primary campaign that focused on issues that would not play well in a general election, when he observed that "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again."

But while Santorum and Newt eagerly displayed their Etch A Sketch props, and Democrats eagerly piled on, few seemed to acknowledge that despite all the fun of the moment, Fehnstrom is largely correct in his observation. If there was enduring damage in the Etch A Sketch comment, it is in the apt metaphor it has offered for Fehnstrom's candidate, not for his campaign.

Come the fall, there will indeed be a new starting line, and the president will be hard pressed -- much as his advisors might love the thought -- to keep contraception on the front burner. While Obama's re-election team moved quickly to seize the high ground in the wake of the Republican genitalia offensive and launch its women strategy, the irony could not have been lost on any who have read Ron Suskind's Confidence Men, a rather thorough smear of the president as manager and team leader of a misogynist horde -- led by since dismissed Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel.

The women strategy will matter, because for all the premature victory cries on MSNBC when the whistle blows starting the fall race, Obama and Romney will be somewhere around 45-45 and the fight will be over the remaining 10 percent. Just like Hillary's supporters who came around to vote for Obama, the Republican right will be sufficiently motivated to show up on November 6th by visions of Barack Obama's second term that they will get past the fact that they have no idea what Mitt Romney actually believes.

Romney will have the opportunity to start again and run the campaign he wanted to run all along. Even today, in the midst of the Santorum onslaught, Romney's campaign's website says nothing about social issues. The issues are jobs and growth, foreign policy, and managing the government. The only reference to social or cultural issues is the masthead statement "We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in."

And he will get to run that campaign in a limited number of states. Looking back at 2008, Obama soundly defeated McCain 365 to 173, for a 192-vote electoral college margin. Obama won the electorate in order of age, with the strongest margins among 18 to 24 year-old voters, and the highest share of the youth (66 percent) vote going back to 1972, as well as the highest share of women voters (56 percent) over the same time-frame.

The other group where Obama outperformed compared to recent electoral history was his winning of the moderate vote, with 60 percent, the highest share for either party over this same timeframe. And this is where Romney has intended to take the fight.

A moderate governor from a blue state, this was going to be Romney's battle plan and battleground. And it still will be.

His focus will be on a handful of states, with few surprises, that could comprise a path to the 96 votes that Romney needs to win. He has to win back traditionally red states Indiana and North Carolina, as well as Virginia. Then he has to add Colorado and Nevada or New Mexico. Each of these states has sizable Mormon populations, a significant Tea Party presence, and were strongly contested in statewide races in 2010. And then there are Florida and Ohio, notorious battleground states that were each won by Obama by 200,000 votes four years ago.

The VP selection generally does not have much impact beyond one state, but in this equation, one state matters. Romney will not pick Santorum, just because it is his choice and he has to have more self-respect than to pick a guy who has savaged him so brutally. That leaves Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Ohio Senator Rob Portman as likely candidates to buttress his chances. But despite his Tea Party cred, Rubio is simply too young. McDonnell has to have been soiled by the transvaginal ultrasound affair, and certainly Romney wants to stay away from the word vagina. That leaves Rob Portman.

That would be a reasonable strategy looking at the electoral path to winning those 96 votes. Romney can lose Florida as long as he wins Pennsylvania. And he should win Pennsylvania if he wins Ohio. Hard to imagine he wins Ohio and Pennsylvania and loses Virginia. And he simply cannot count on Florida, even though Obama's margin was thinner in Florida than Ohio or Virginia, both because of Republican punting of Latino voters, and just because it is... Florida.

The election results in 2008 and 2010 point to a central question about 2012: Who will show up? The 2010 electoral rebuke of the president was not so much about a change in the national mood as much as a change in who showed up -- a notably older and whiter slice of America than in 2008.

Obama will be well-served to focus on women, as the Republican gender gap -- already wide -- has only been exacerbated. While Rush Limbaugh has long set the direction of Republican national strategy, his is a rhetoric best kept to true believers.

The challenge for Romney will be to craft a positive message that charts an alternative direction for the country. His stump speeches lack either philosophical or policy vision. Instead, he is defining himself purely against the president -- a political version of Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, Groucho Marx' eloquent character in Horsefeathers: Whatever the president says, whatever the president does, Romney is against it.

The fall campaign will not be about anything that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are arguing about. And the national media has even caught up with the fact that arguments about the price of gas have long been the staple of political campaigns and ignore the reality of commodity pricing and markets.

Eric Fehrnstrom is correct. The slate will be wiped clean in the fall. The challenge for the Romney campaign will be to articulate an alternative, more conservative vision of the nation, and in the fall campaign Whatever he says, whatever he did, I'm against it is unlikely to suffice. There are many compelling and traditional Republican themes that one might embrace -- smaller banks perhaps, ending government-by-lobbyist, curtailed foreign entanglements, and of course fiscal responsibility. However, while Romney's website asserts the moral responsibility not to overspend, in his stump speech he pledges not to touch Medicare, which raises the question of how Romney balances his sense of moral obligation in the face of political exigencies. This is his Etch A Sketch problem.

For his part, the president's reelection may yet rest on factors beyond his control. He has doubled down on claims that we are out of the economic woods, yet that remains a tenuous claim. And then there is Iran. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may yet meddle in our elections, and for all the debates over Obamacare, the president's reelection may yet be influenced as much by issues of war and peace as by individual mandates and the commerce clause.