An Obama campaign sign is hung in the media filing center in preparation… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – President Obama has failed to seal the deal for a second term exactly three weeks from election day. His weak performance in the first debate squandered an edge that his campaign — and Bill Clinton — worked hard to establish over the summer and opened the door for a come-from-behind victory by Mitt Romney.
With the campaign at “a tipping point,” the president must go beyond his negative attack ads and give voters a positive reason to support him. He needs to explain what he’s learned from his years in office and exactly what a second Obama term would look like. And he has to display far more toughness than he has up to now.
That, in essence, is how three of the Democratic Party’s most seasoned and savvy strategists see the 2012 presidential contest and the stakes for Tuesday’s night’s debate on New York’s Long Island.
In separate pre-election memos, Peter Hart, Stan Greenberg and James Carville are bluntly critical of their party’s president and anything but bullish about the prospect of defeating Romney.
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“The race is very, very close. It comes down to the debates, the attitudes about the economy (they have improved recently), and most importantly, turnout with younger voters and Hispanic voters. Factor all of these elements together, this election continues to feel like 2004,” concludes Hart. In 2004, of course, a deeply divided country narrowly gave an incumbent president, George W. Bush, another term.
Hart concludes that next month’s election is still Obama’s to win. But the veteran pollster, whose clients include NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, can also see Obama blowing it.
He hasn’t just come to this conclusion suddenly. Back in May, he boiled his survey and focus group research down and warned that Obama was in trouble. He cautioned overly optimistic Democrats that the election was “no better than a 50-50 proposition” for the president.
This week, after a recent discussion with swing voters in Columbus, Ohio – a swing area in the top swing state in the country – Hart wrote that the first Obama-Romney debate had raised the stakes even higher for both men in their second encounter.
Swing voters, in Hart’s view, “need to see the fight, the inspiration, and the grittiness of Obama, which they perceive is just plain missing. From the beginning of this campaign, voters simply have wanted to know that his second term will be better than his first and that he has learned and grown from the experience. Obama’s indifferent performance at the convention and the first debate leaves them waiting to see such a transformation.”
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By contrast, Romney’s commanding showing in the initial debate “got the attention of people who largely had tuned him out. He was able to shake off the ‘frozen smile’ that previously characterized him to so many. These Columbus swing voters are not ready to switch on the basis of one debate, but they are open to being persuaded if Romney continues to outshine Obama.”
But each candidate faces significant challenges. Romney “has never been able to close that emotional linkage with the voters. The question ahead of him is whether he can gain the respect and success labels that would give voters a reason to support him,” writes Hart.
For Obama, a key vulnerability that emerged from a question that Hart has been asking – about Obama’s toughness — hasn’t gone away after four years. The president’s backbone “has rarely been described as steel — it always is a malleable material. This focus group was no different. It was described as ‘a willow’ (bending with the breeze), ‘rubber,’ ‘silicon sealant,’ and as Amy, [an] undecided mom put it: ‘I put bricks because … he’s very sturdy [looking], but he kind of crumbles. You know, the mortar in there isn’t always so tight.’ These voters have not turned on him as they did with Bush 41 or Carter, but they need more than they have seen today to close the deal.”
Carville and Greenberg were equally blunt in a memo they distributed on Monday.
“The campaign has reached a tipping point,” they wrote. “The first debate really did disrupt the race and presents a painful real-time test of what happens when the president tries to convince people of progress and offer a very modest vision of future change.”
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These Democratic strategists, who were instrumental in Clinton’s rise to the presidency in 1992, contend that 2012 will be another change election (as was 1992). For Obama to win, he needs to seize that mantle — no easy task for an incumbent.