Can Obama adapt to new race?

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Published August 17, 2012

| FoxNews.com

"I wouldn't have voted for him before. I won't again."

-- Mike Cunningham II, proprietor of the Bud Tent at the Iowa State Fair, complaining to the Des Moines Register that President Obama's sudsy photo-op at the beer stand meant $25,000 in lost revenues.

Democrats say that President Obama's unconventional strategy for the 2012 election hasn't yet begun the crucial phase: the pivot to positivism.

Obama's theory of the 2012 election was to do what other incumbents have feared to attempt and open the campaign on a sustained negative note. The idea was to destroy Romney's public image and then, with the Republican nominee in tatters, set about the business of restoring some sheen to the president's somewhat tarnished brand.

This is sort of the same thing that Obama did in the White House. Obama came in swinging hard and spent most of his first two years pushing an unpopular new health-insurance entitlement. Then he undertook a "hard pivot" to focus on the economy.

The health law, though, consumed more time and more political capital than Democrats had expected. Even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress, the health law proved to be overwhelming.  

The result was a scorching defeat for Democrats in 2010. Even before the midterms were done, though, Team Obama was promising a renewed focus on economic and employment issues.

But with a new House Republican majority, the first eight months of the year were mostly given over to issues of government spending and debt. Rather than talking about jobs directly, Obama had to explain why fights over funding the government and raising the federal debt limit were related to jobs. He had to make a defense of his support for deficit-funded stimulus spending before he could talk about new ideas for reviving the sagging economy.

It was Labor Day before Obama could start laying out his new vision, which was about income inequality and raising taxes on the wealthy to finance more domestic spending.

From September to April, he pushed on that concept as well as an argument that the weak economy was the fault of House Republican intransigence on his agenda.

Then began Obama's spring offensive in which he and his team went on a scorched-earth campaign against by-then presumptive Republican nominee Romney. They had been expecting to face Romney all along, but the speed and thoroughness with which Romney captured his party's nomination was surprising.

So Obama rolled out the next phase of his campaign strategy: character attacks on Romney. Even the gentlest political scribes were amazed at how mean Obama was and how early. But many believed that the attacks would work, and nothing succeeds with reporters like success.

And after four months of the negative barrage against Romney, it looked like it was finally paying off. Whatever damage the president had done to his own brand as a healer and uniter, was being more than offset by Romney's crumbling favorability ratings and Romney seemed to be exhausted.

And just at the moment, Romney pulled the Ryan ripcord and changed the trajectory of the race.

A look at the swing state polls starting to trickle in shows that Romney has at worst stopped his deterioration and at best started outpacing the president. Ryan's choice not only enthused the GOP base, but seemingly convinced some independent voters fed up with the status quo that the moderate former governor of Massachusetts was about some big ideas.

Romney has halved Obama's lead in Franklin & Marshall's Pennsylvania poll and is either leading or statistically tied in a slew of other battleground polls. Something good is happening for Romney and it seems directly attributable to Ryan.

Will it last long enough? Will the bounce carry Romney to his party's convention? Will Ryan come to be defined negatively? Will the seeds planted in the four moths of attacks bear bitter fruit for Romney in the closing weeks? Who knows?

But the immutable fact is that Obama did not ruin Romney before the current change took place. The hope with the sustained barrage by Obama was that by this point, the president would have enough of a cushion to switch to a positive closing argument. But here we are in a deadlocked contest and Romney is still kicking.

The three phases of the Obama strategy -- attack, pivot to positivism and then go like hell to get out the vote - are still enact, but the schedule is looking a little iffy.

Obama won't likely be able to keep up his positive pivot after his convention speech. With Republican outside groups already blasting the president's record and Romney well within striking distance, Team Obama will need to return fire.

That could make for a confusing closing argument in an already chaotic media atmosphere. To win back the support of skeptical independents, Obama will have to recapture some of that "vision thing," but it's hard to get that back if your campaign is locked in a firefight with Romney.

And there's this: Having been so negative for so long, Obama's campaign may have poisoned the political atmosphere to the point that the press gives Romney broad latitude in his attacks and voters close their ears to any subsequent entreaties from Obama to see him again as a man who can heal a broken political system.

An interesting parallel for the president: It was the success of Republicans in 2010 that stymied his "hard pivot" to jobs. And it is the apparent success of one House Republican, Ryan, as Romney's running mate that may jeopardize Obama's pivot to positivism.

And Now, A Word From Charles

"There is a reason [President Obama] is not running ads on that.  He loses on all the polls on Obamacare.  There is a reason he had only two lines on it to State of the Union address.  He thought he had a patsy in Romney because of these similarities.  But now it turned against him and Republicans are relishing the fight on Obamacare because it's the one area, the stealing from Medicare, where Romney can actually argue toe to toe."

-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier."

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at  live.foxnews.com.

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