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First Week: A Ragged Start, and Obama's Real Problems

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It was an interesting first week in the general election campaign. After Rick Santorum's sudden withdrawal essentially handed the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney, on the 100th anniversary of Titanic setting sail on its fateful voyage, President Barack Obama had a mostly good week. But the big flap over foolhardy comments by a Democratic lobbyist on a cable chat show demonstrated alarmingly, again, how debate can be derailed by trivial pursuits even in the face of far more consequential issues. And though the domestic dynamics of the campaign -- economic fairness and women's rights -- mostly favored Obama, geopolitical crises that could seriously damage Obama's presidency loomed very large.

While the conventional US media was happy to spend a day focusing on a ping pong go-round over cable chat comments disparaging Ann Romney by a longtime record industry lobbyist and LGBT advocate who isn't part of the Obama campaign, Obama has some real strengths to play with and real problems to deal with.

First the good news for Obama.

Romney, trying to flip Democratic rhetoric about a conservative "war on women" based on his primary stances, claimed in an interview with friendly Fox News that 92% of jobs lost during the Obama Adminstration were held by women and that Obama was responsible. That's a big distortion.

Then, on a conference call, Romney aides couldn't say if Romney backs a fair pay law for women. Considering that women are a huge problem for Romney, who claimed to be the inevitable nominee from the start, you'd think they would have this stuff down. The campaign later announced that Romney does back the law.

Polling showed also that Romney still has to win over young right-wingers, especially in the Midwest, where he already has a big problem with independents. Which points up the pretzel logic challenges facing Mitt Romney. He must move right and left at the same time.

Meanwhile, Gallup showed Romney near a record low of party support for a presumptive nominee. Only Democrat George McGovern had a lower level of support in his own party, back in 1972 as he moved toward his historic shellacking at the hands of Richard Nixon.

Finally, two big pluses for Obama on economic fairness and the economy in general. There is a huge 63-37 edge in the new Gallup Poll for the Buffett Rule, which Romney, no traitor to his class he, absolutely hates. And a new Gallup Poll survey of several measures of economic activity shows upward indicators.

These are good signs for Obama, who played to them throughout the week in his messaging, and fundamental problems for Romney, who has pitched his background as a, er, leveraged buyout specialist as the key to reviving the economy.

Now the bad news, and it's not about a media culture which focuses on culture war ping pong, though that's an ongoing problem for Obama.

North Korea's long-range missile test, cast in the guise of a weather satellite launch, failed. Which is good for Obama in that it was an implicit rebuke of his food deal with the Hermit Kingdom. But it may be bad in that North Korea's young new leader probably feels compelled to go ahead with a nuclear test blast.

North Korea is already a nuclear power, and it's simply a matter of containing their somewhat crude capabilities. Which is why the US has more troops on South Korea than there are in the entire Canadian Army.

While North Korea is a longstanding major irritant, and hopefully little more, it can be an embarrassment to Obama, perhaps a big one.

The crisis with Iran and Israel promises to be much more consequential. The weekend negotiation with Iran in Istanbul looks to be not much, with Iran's new proposals of a few days ago to deal with widespread concern about its nuclear program not materializing and the negotiators agreeing on little of substance except to continue talks over a month from now, at Iran's preferred site in Baghdad. (The fact that Iran wants to meet in a friendly Iraqi capital should give pause to fervent advocates for war with Iran. They tend to be the same people who pushed for war with Iraq, which empowered Iran in the region and resulted in an Iraqi government tilting toward Tehran.)

Then there's the linked ongoing crisis in Syria, where Assad regime forces are sort of honoring a ceasefire, but not really.

And Egypt, where the secular reformers who launched the revolution have lost out and the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to win not only the parliament, which has already happened, but also the presidency, which the group previously had agreed not to contest.

Mitt Romney is at last what he's been claiming to be all these many months, the all but inevitable nominee of the Republican Party. Romney ran against an interesting and frequently entertaining but deeply flawed field, benefiting for most of the campaign by a divided opposition, winning by money, negative ads, and attrition. Still he was walloped in major contest after major contest.

He's pretty damaged goods. But I expect the race to get closer, before it opens up again.

What it took for Romney to win, going even more conservative in 2012 than he did as the hard right conservative choice in the 2008 primaries, makes it hard for him to win the independent swing voters he needs to become president.

The fact that his campaign spokesman mused so candidly about the "Etch A Sketch" nature of the candidacy; i.e., shifting his political identity yet again for the general election, doesn't make it any easier for Romney to pull off his patented chameleon act.

And one thing he can never shake is what is evidently his core identity as an advocate of anything-goes finance capitalism. He made that lastingly clear in January, when he cast as anti-American any criticism of Wall Street ways, even those made by his own chief strategist in the 2010 California governor's race, as I wrote at the time here on the Huffington Post.

Much can still go wrong for Obama, but it will probably take something big for him to lose.

But would America turn to Mitt Romney, who promises an even more hard-boiled version of the old Bush/Cheney policies?

Only if Obama seems incompetent.

Naturally, there will be tons of advertising designed to show just that, with most of it coming from super PACs, principally the Karl Rove-led Crossroads operation. Not that Rove will be escaping his identity as the chief Bush/Cheney strategist.

But the unlimited spending allowed by the split Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case may well blunt, at least in part, what should be the incumbent president's financial advantage. So if the world goes arse over tea kettle, all bets may be off.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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