Last month, the In Box laid out the considerable hurdles that Republican challenger Mitt Romney faces as he tries to unseat President Barack Obama.
The Republican has to overcome a systemic tilt which, even with the popular vote nearly tied at present, currently gives the Democrat a 50-70 vote advantage in the electoral college.
If the vote were held today, Mr. Obama would likely receive only a slight plurality of the popular vote, yet he would prevail with landslide numbers in the electoral college, winning by 332 to 206 margin.
Which means that to win, Romney can’t fight a trench warfare battle, muddling forward state-by-state. His margin for error is just too thin.
Instead, he has to claim the high ground in the national narrative. That means finding a way to fundamentally redefine Obama in the mind of voters, particularly the independents in a half-dozen swing states that will decide the outcome.
In other words, he has to do to Obama what George W. Bush did to Al Gore and John Kerry (and what Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter).
So far, Romney hasn’t pulled that off.
Instead, he’s relied largely on the broad conventional wisdom within the conservative movement that the sputtering economy alone will define Obama, convincing centrist voters that his election in 2008 was a mistake and an aberration.
It’s true that the high unemployment number has left the president vulnerable. So long as hiring remains stagnant, this race will remain competitive.
But with fewer than 120 days to the election, right now it’s the Democrats who control the narrative.
It’s an astonishing turnabout for a party which for two decades was flummoxed and muddled by the conservative message-machine, tossed on the defensive by Willie Horton and Swift Boat type attacks.
In this election cycle, by contrast, the Obama campaign has embraced sharp-elbow tactics similar to the ones pioneered by right-of-center pols like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.
Team Obama has focused media attention successfully on Romney’s tenure at corporate giant Bain Capital, often bending or shading the truth in order to paint the Republican as a slick corporate operator.
While fact-checkers have dismissed or downplayed many of the Obama campaign’s claims — about outsourcing and about Romney’s overseas investments — the story-line has still gained traction to a degree that no challenger can afford.
There’s an old saying that if you’re on the defensive in politics — if you are struggling to explain how your opponent is cheating or playing unfair or lying — then you’re losing.
Mitt Romney has demanded an apology and suggested that Obama should apologize.
But this overall dynamic is making conservatives nervous. This from the Associated Press:
“There is no whining in politics,” chided John Weaver, a veteran Republican strategist. “Stop demanding an apology, release your tax returns.”
Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find a clear Republican line of attack that might define (or redefine) Obama in voter’s minds, at least in a bold enough way that would benefit Romney.
The GOP has attempted at various times to brand Obama as incompetent, anti-American, naive, and cynical. One moment he’s a cold-hearted Chicago pol, the next minute he’s an underachieving, in-over-his-head bumbler.
The narrative is further muddled by the fact that it often gets tangled up in conservative conspiracy theories, from birtherism to claims that Obama isn’t a Christian.
Another problem: Many of the surrogates attacking Obama have been clumsy, hysterical or outrageous. The Swift Boat attacks on Kerry in 2004 were highly disciplined and effective.
But the end-times hand-wringing of Glenn Beck in 2012 discredit the larger, more plausible argument that the Democrats simply don’t have a credible plan to revive the national economy.
Finally, it hasn’t helped matters that Romney has failed to outline any real or substantive plans for what he would do if elected to the nation’s highest office.
Even many conservatives, including Karl Rove, have begun demanding more specifics.
“The closer Nov. 6 gets,” Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the more pressure there will be on the GOP challenger to offer a principled, practical, detailed governing vision. He has many important policies on his website. He could cite them more consistently in his speeches and point voters to them in his campaign ads.”
The good news for Romney is that he has a ton of cash to use to tell his story. Also, conservative anger at Obama, along with the sour economy, have kept the Republican in the game.
Sometimes, as a challenger, the best you can hope for is to stay close and hope that something goes your way. You might catch a break and find an opening to surge ahead.
It worked for Ronald Reagan, who rode a late surge to the White House in 1980, after trailing in the polls through most of the campaign.
But Reagan had a clear, positive, ambitious story to tell.
With the weeks ticking by, it appears so far that Team Romney hasn’t figured out what narrative it wants voters to remember on election day –about their own candidate or about our current president.