Presidential campaign still hinging on economy


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Three years ago, on the final day of the Pittsburgh G-20 meeting, a smiling President Barack Obama stood with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a closing news conference.

Not long after that September 2009 Group of 20 session, Mr. Brown was a private citizen, turned out of office by voters battered by the effects of the world financial crisis that was the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh meeting. Mr. Sarkozy's popularity continued to sink as France's economy sputtered; voters installed a Socialist Party president this year. Japan's Yukio Hatoyama, who threw out the first pitch at a Pirates-Dodgers game that week, would resign as prime minister before the next spring amid his country's lingering economic ills.

In countries including the Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece, similar stories played out. Economic ills were a scythe to the ambitions of incumbents throughout the world.

Mr. Obama hopes to escape a similar fate Tuesday. In doing so, he would be the first incumbent president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 to be returned amid such a persistently high unemployment rate. This is not the re-election campaign that Mr. Obama, a Democrat, wanted.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is running the race he had talked about all along. In September 2011, he joined a handful of his rivals at a prayer breakfast the morning of a closely watched -- by insiders -- Republican straw poll in Florida. His rivals' remarks were dominated by denunciations of the White House on a variety of social conservative issues high among the audience's priorities. Mr. Romney, by contrast, kept his focus on the economy, portraying his business background as a key credential to criticize Mr. Obama's fiscal stewardship.

As the caucuses and primaries went on through the winter and spring, the former Massachusetts governor, viewed with skepticism by some social conservatives over past statements on issues such as gay rights and abortion, proved adept at outlasting a succession of often-more-conservative "anti-Romneys" -- U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

To a gathering of social conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., in February, Mr. Romney touted his "severely conservative" record as governor. But for him, the economy remained the lodestar of his campaign, just as it remained the most important issue for most voters.

Yet in this seemingly adverse atmosphere for incumbents, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney went into the final days of the campaign locked in a too-close-to-call competition -- a status that reflects the resilience, ample spending and tough tactics of both campaigns.

Half full or half empty?

Mr. Obama seeks a second term with a record of significant if controversial accomplishments.

While enacted after a messy legislative battle that took a toll on the popularity of the White House as well as congressional Democrats, "Obamacare" has at least the potential of fulfilling health care goals that have eluded presidents of both parties dating back to Harry Truman. The 2009 economic stimulus legislation is heralded by the administration as having staved off a much more severe financial spiral.

But just as scholars continue to battle over whether the New Deal buffered or exacerbated the effects of the Great Depression, the fact that no one can say with certainty what would have happened without the stimulus makes the arguments over it unresolvable.

In an example of the maxim that "history does not disclose its alternatives," the administration contends that it staved off a new Depression, and no one can absolutely prove it wrong. But by the same token, the absence of an alternative factual record allows Mr. Romney to argue that Mr. Obama's policies prolonged the economic slump he inherited.

That "the glass is half full -- no, it's half empty" analysis saw its latest iteration in the campaign's reaction to Friday's monthly jobs report. The administration hailed its news of 171,000 new jobs as evidence of steady progress in the economic recovery.

Mr. Romney, focusing on the fact that the unemployment rate had climbed from 7.8 to 7.9 percent, called it "a sad reminder that the economy is at a virtual standstill."

Although foreign policy has ranked low on the list of voter priorities this cycle, Mr. Obama, along with events, has managed to turn an issue on which Democrats have sometimes been vulnerable, into a strength, with his wind-down of the war in Iraq and, most prominently, the successful dispatch of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs. Republicans have not conceded foreign affairs. They continue to raise questions about the administration's performance and explanations on the Libyan attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on Sept. 11. But events abroad have taken a back seat to the pace of the economic recovery.

Mr. Romney entered the last month of the campaign still standing -- although not necessarily leading -- after having been the target of a months-long swing-state assault from the Obama campaign.

Picking up the rhetorical baton from some of his GOP rivals, the Democrats portrayed him a businessman of cold calculation, indifferent to the effects of his firm's decisions and investments on ordinary workers.

Mr. Romney did his bit to reinforce that image in the now-notorious pirated video that showed him scorning the dependence of the "47 percent" of Americans who, he said, would never vote for him.

Remarkably close race

But Mr. Romney made strides in shaking off that characterization with the strong first debate performance that restored the race to near-parity after post-convention weeks in September when it appeared that his campaign might have been in danger of foundering. After Mr. Romney's glowing Denver reviews, the race appeared to return to the narrow margins that had characterized it since Mr. Romney emerged in the spring as the certain GOP nominee. That underscored the impression that, despite the billions spent so far, this has been with few exceptions a stubbornly stable competition for months.

While partisans will continue to bicker over which polls will prove more reliable, two factors have remained consistent in the aggregated polling results compiled by different news organizations.

The first is that the overall national race is remarkably close, with neither candidate able to amass a consistent lead of more than a point or two. RealClearPolitics' national average, as of Friday, showed Mr. Obama with a lead of just 0.3 percent.

The other clear suggestion of the broad polling picture is that the incumbent, while vulnerable, appears to have more plausible paths through the swing states to an electoral-vote majority.

Mr. Obama's narrow but persistent lead in Ohio symbolizes that apparent tactical edge. In that context, Mr. Romney's late play in Pennsylvania was one of the first attempts in months to change the geographic terms of their combat.

Pennsylvania has seen plenty of political ads. Pittsburgh has been inundated with spots for the battle between Republican Keith Rothfus and Rep. Mark Critz in the 12th Congressional District, but until last week, the presidential campaigns and their surrogates have been essentially absent.

The case that Mr. Romney, who will appear in Bucks County today, can close that gap in Pennsylvania rests on two premises. The first is that recent narrowing of Mr. Obama's margins in state polls shows movement that will continue to Election Day. The second is that because Pennsylvania voters, unlike Ohio's, have not been surfeited with commercials so far, they will be less likely to tune out their messages.

The Obama campaign finds a whiff of desperation in that logic. They contended last week that the eleventh-hour turn to the Keystone State was an implicit acknowledgment that Mr. Romney's Ohio campaign was falling short, and that the Republican campaign was now flailing around in search of other, less plausible paths to a majority. But Robert Gleason, the state GOP chair, has insisted for months that Mr. Romney would carry the state, combining the votes of its increasingly conservative west with a renewed appeal to the once reliably Republican suburbs surrounding Philadelphia to deliver an electoral prize that would more than make up for Ohio.

Mr. Obama so far has not scheduled any return visits to Pennsylvania, but countering the Romney appearance, former President Bill Clinton is slated to appear in the state Monday.

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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