02/01/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

Obama v. Mitt: Staggering Toward November

It ain't over, no matter what the Republican establishment may wish. Newt is not finished, but it's safe to say, the handwriting is on the wall.

On the one hand, the new energetic Romney is funded, strategically sound, and climbing. On the other hand he is one gaff, one revelation, away from collapse. The majority of Republican primary voters remain deeply uncomfortable with him. That discomfort is cultural, ideological, theological and personal and it won't go away. If either Paul or Santorum pulls out, that Silent Majority will find its way to Gingrich. So, long shot as he may be, Newt's still out there.

Romney comes out of Florida both strengthened and weakened. He's a better, more aggressive candidate to be sure. But the labeling process that all candidates go through has left him beaten up. Thanks to Newt's Occupy-Mitt attack on his Bain Capital shenanigans, Romney has been painted as the rich kid with good hair who is the candidate of the 1 %ers (not far from the truth). That is the precise and only narrative that works for Obama. It remains to be seen if that label will stick as the campaign progresses, but it could be the gift that keeps on giving.

Leading up to Florida, Romney was running a terrible, out-of-touch campaign. It was tinged by a kind of genial and self-congratulatory arrogance that is the kiss of death for any candidate. It's a sign of how bad it was that it took a major defeat in South Carolina to open Romney's eyes. Yet he learned the lesson and did what he had to do. It's not as easy a feat as he made it look.

Obama is perched in the wings, ready to... who knows? For a genuinely smart guy, you wonder how the president managed to lose the political high ground so completely. He inherited an economic mess well beyond anyone's expectations, and a Republican crew of wreckers who would rather the country tank than do anything that Obama can claim as a victory. But that doesn't explain away some fundamental political miscalculations. As important as it was for the nation to address its dysfunctional health care system, the American people were infinitely more focused on economic recovery. The decision to take on health care reform first seems strangely out of touch in retrospect. Just as Romney suffers from the creation of an image as out-of-touch, so does Obama. And just as Romney pivoted at the last minute and seemed to save his candidacy, Obama has tried to do the same.

Obama figured out that if the conversation in 2012 was about him, there was no path to re-election. He started with the Kansas speech, resurrecting the populist Teddy Roosevelt attack on the rich, and doubled-down in a State of the Union speech seemingly written in a tent in Zucotti Park. It wasn't an ideological reach for him. Rather it was a reminder of the tone and ideas that got him elected in the first place. It partially re-energized his base and partially gave him the same argument against Mitt that Newt had perfected in South Carolina.

So, as Groundhog Day approaches, the shadowy outlines of the campaign emerge. The ideas that will dominate become clear, and the two likely candidates try to recover from similar self-inflicted wounds. It's worth remembering that presidential campaigns are never straight lines, and that outside events will have much to do with the outcome. Just imagine the political impact of an Iranian oil blockade, or a European debt meltdown, or a dramatic drop in the jobless rate.

The stakes in this election are huge. The Republican Party is the vehicle for a combination of social reactionaries and economic royalists. In power, they will move the country in exactly the direction they say they will. It's enough to keep you up at night.