Published April 23, 2012
"The one issue people are concerned about is the economy, we're not stupid. It is the economy and we're going to do what's necessary to replace this president and to get somebody in the White House who understands the economy and get it working again for the American people."
-- Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney campaigning in Greencastle, Pa.
"... they're in the thralls of this reign of terror from the far right that has dragged the party to the right."
-- David Axelrod, senior political adviser to President Obama, on "State of the Union" discussing House Republicans
In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton unseated an incumbent president who had successfully prosecuted the first major American military action since Vietnam and who was widely respected as a thoughtful, qualified leader.
Clinton did it with two things.
First was the indispensable Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire whose independent candidacy -- a crusade against deficit spending and in favor of more government transparency and accountability -- tipped the race to Clinton. Consider Ohio, where Bush lost to Clinton by less than 2 points. Perot took more than 20 percent of the vote in Ohio, surely harming Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush more than Democrat challenger Clinton.
Second was Clinton's relentless focus on the puny condition of the economy in 1992.
It sounds funny to say now, but with a first quarter gross domestic product growth rate of about 4.5 percent and an unemployment rate over 7 percent, Americans had grown frustrated with the pace of recovery from the 1990-1991 recession. Those numbers sound great now, but had left voters, accustomed to the boom years before, feeling crabby.
Clinton, who had essentially clinched the Democratic nomination on April 7 with wins over former (and future) California Gov. Jerry Brown in Wisconsin and New York, saw an opportunity and honed in on the incumbent's weak spot.
Democrats who had been skeptical of Clinton's "third-way" centrist politics during the fractious primary process of that year were so eager to see an end to nearly 12-years of Republican control of the White House that they quickly fell in line behind Clinton.
Clinton had tremendous personal liabilities. His primary campaign was almost upended by the revelations from an Arkansas mistress and revelations about collegiate drug use and avoidance of service in Vietnam added to a Republican line of attack on the Democratic nominee as too radical and too lacking in character to be the commander in chief, especially when contrasted with the dutiful Bush.
But voters were not much interested in what Clinton had smoked or whether he had helped arrange anti-war protests in London instead of serving in Vietnam. Instead they were eager to hear Clinton's pitch for economic reforms that he said could kick-start the economy and rein in deficit spending.
The implicit message from Team Clinton was that while George H. W. Bush had been presiding over the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War, he had neglected domestic concerns and the economy. The guy didn't even know how grocery-store scanners worked, for goodness sake!
This year, Mitt Romney doesn't have the help of a Ross Perot-style spoiler (though the group Americans Elect may yet produce a left-of-center nominee who can play part of that role). But he does have an economy in much worse shape than it was in 1992 and a widespread belief that President Obama doesn't understand the economy.
So far, we're seeing the Obama campaign run very much like the Bush campaign in 1992. The focus is on painting Romney as a secret radical whose personal background should be disqualifying to hold the highest office in the land.
The Obama character attack on Romney has mostly to do with the way the quarter-billionaire made his money and how he has shielded it from taxes. When the Obama campaign asks, "what is Romney hiding?" it means to suggest nefarious doings. The campaign has even invoked the 1983 treatment of the Romney family's Irish setter on a car trip to Canada as evidence of Romney's poor character.
Democrats have added other lines of attack, wondering aloud if Romney's Mormon faith should be cause for concern.
In an interview with liberal Web site the Daily Beast last week, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer allowed that Romney could make the case to Hispanic voters that his father was an immigrant from Mexico, "but then he'd have to talk about his family coming from a polygamy commune in Mexico," which Schweitzer, the former head of the Democratic Governors Association, said would hurt Romney with female voters.
Democrats tie together the arguments about the secretive and cruel Romney in the president's pitch on the stump that Romney and his fellow rich folks are working to make, to borrow Vice President Joe Biden's term, "suckers" of middle class Americans.
Just like the campaign of George H.W. Bush, the Obama Democrats want persuadable voters to be convinced that Romney is hiding secret, radical tendencies dangerous to the country. Sure, he sounds like a moderate...
Romney has nowhere near the political gifts of Clinton and Obama is a more skillful politician than the 41st president. But the same dynamics seem to be very much at work and given the droopy economy and Obama's poor marks on the subject with voters, may be moving with even greater power.
The challenge for Romney is the same as it was for Bubba in 1992: Every day not discussing the economy or Obama's economic approach is a bad day. The Obama team will be doing everything it can to make sure that Romney spends plenty of time talking about Irish setter transportation and tax shelters.
The Day in Quotes
-- The portion of Americans under age 25 with college degrees who were unemployed or underemployed according an Associated Press study of unemployment data.
"...perfect for a bicycle or hybrid."
-- Description of the bumper sticker offered by the new "Environmentalists for Obama" program being offered by president's re-election campaign.
"Leon is doing an important job for the country, really a service to the country at the age of 73 after a long career. He followed Bob Gates at the request of the president. I don't think people are going to begrudge him going home and seeing his family."
-- David Axelrod, senior political adviser to President Obama, on "State of the Union" discussing the approximately $860,000 spent on weekend trips home to California by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta since taking the post in July.
"I can't think of anyone so reflective of the thinking, principles and ideals of our state."
-- Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in a new ad for embattled Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who gave Daniels his first job in politics in 1969 as a mayoral aide in Indianapolis. Lugar, 80, faces a tough test in his re-election bid from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the state's May 8 primary.
"Insiders have already seen the hand of Mr. Bernard in the presence at the dinner for [British Prime Minister David Cameron] of nearly four dozen 'bundlers,' or people who solicit campaign checks for Mr. Obama from their friends and associates."
-- Sunday New York Times article on White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard.
"The design of the demonstration precludes a credible evaluation of its effectiveness in achieving (the administration's) stated research goal."
-- A report from the Government Accountability Office blasting a provision in President Obama's health law that provides an $8.3 billion "pilot program" for Medicare, which Republicans say is actually just a way to soften the political blow from the first rounds of scheduled cuts to the program.
-- Portion of registered voters in the latest FOX News poll who support Arizona's immigration law. The Obama administration's effort to block the measure, which allows police to determine the immigration status of those whom they detain on suspicion of other offenses, will be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.