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How Romney must step forward in the debates

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Sept. 26, 2012: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Westerville, Ohio.AP

The debates are Governor Romney’s last chance to turn around his flagging campaign. He must communicate what he has so far failed to convey—his vision to give Americans a better life and deal with tough challenges, like the financial meltdown and the Arab Spring, that are unforeseeable when presidents are chosen.

Mr. Romney made his fortune in private equity, and to most Americans, the benefits of such activities are much more difficult to grasp than those of a Steve Jobs. In the confusion, President Obama has unfairly painted the Governor as a man who got rich sending American jobs to China.

What Mr. Obama does not tell voters is that as the nation’s CEO he repeatedly spent US stimulus dollars in China that were intended to create American jobs. For example, components for government-financed wind turbines and materials for construction projects.

For his own part, Mr. Romney has failed to communicate his accomplishments as governor of Massachusetts. He worked with the opposing party to craft health care reforms both parties could embrace, and harnessed the costs of the runaway "Big Dig" project—a tunnel connecting Boston with Logan Airport.

As president of the Boston Stake—the Mormon Church equivalent of the Bishop—he undertook remarkable efforts to combat urban gangs and the effects of drugs, cooperated with other faith communities, and administered his church’s extensive system to help the needy. In his personal ministry, he walked in places most of us prefer not to visit.

If Mr. Romney’s faith is a handicap, it is that it teaches the faithful to embrace responsibility for the conditions around them, act to make things better, and be modest about personal accomplishments.

Those are exactly the traits Americans should seek in a leader, even if those do not serve a candidate very well in a campaign.

The country is hardly better off today than it was four years ago.

In October 2009, unemployment peaked at 10 percent. Since the recession ended, the economy has grown only at about 2 percent. Unemployment is now down to 8.1 percent but only because so many folks have left the labor force. Were the same percentage of adults seeking work today as when the President took office, unemployment would be closer to 11 percent.

We have seen worse conditions and should be doing better.

In November of the second year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent in the wake of double digit inflation and interest rates. By the fall of 1984, the economy was growing at better than 6 percent and unemployment was down to 7.3 percent. It reached 5.4 by the time Mr. Regan left office and adult participation was rising.

Mr. Obama accuses Mr. Romney of returning America to the failed policies of the past, but not all Republicans are like George Bush any more than all Democrats are like Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Romney proposes to make American’s taxes less complex and fairer—lower rates and fewer deductions, credits and special favors. He has tangible plans to cut dependence on foreign oil in half and bring back millions of manufacturing jobs from China. All things the president has promised but failed to accomplish.

Mr. Romney’s website lays it all out, but he has not been particularly effective in TV ads and public appearances explaining how all that will create jobs and growth.

The Obama campaign exploits this by filling in the blanks with half truths and distortions to the point of making this pundit ask: Does Mr. Obama believe he is running against George Bush or Mitt Romney? Has the president even bothered to read his opponent’s published platform?

In the debates, Mr. Romney must make his character and plans apparent—tell voters more about his personal journey and how he will take the country forward.

The nation already knows too much about Mr. Obama’s instincts and unkept promises.

Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and widely published columnist. He is the five time winner of the MarketWatch best forecaster award. Follow him on Twitter @PMorici1.