“We saw Governor Romney sort of serially walk away from his own proposals and certainly the president is going to be willing to challenge him, on it, as we saw the vice president challenge Paul Ryan.”
-- David Axelrod, senior political adviser to President Obama, on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”
President Obama has been cramming for his big test on Tuesday and his advisers say that he’ll be ready to attack the surging Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
After trying to attack Romney in the first debate for being an enemy of the working class, Obama is switching gears and will make his broadsides more personal, focusing on Romney’s character by calling the former Massachusetts governor a flip-flopper.
The question is, though, having failed to make the first debate about Romney’s record and character, can Obama shift the focus to his challenger?
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Team Obama has mostly devoted itself to character attacks during this election cycle: focusing not on tax policy as much as Romney’s taxes, not on business policy as much Romney’s practices as a businessman, not on foreign policy as much as Romney’s alleged exploitation of the ongoing crisis in the Muslim world.
In the first debate, it did not work because not only did Romney find a way to bring the fight to the sour-seeming incumbent, but also because the discussion understandably veered more toward Obama’s record than to the challenger’s biography.
Obama seemed to sense that he couldn’t prosecute Romney as a tax evading “vampire” without looking like he was being petty. It’s one thing to send a campaign flack out to say, “Well, the real question about taxes is whether Mitt Romney will release the rest of his returns.” It’s quite another for the president, in front of 70 million of his fellow citizens, to use the same counterthrust when confronted with a serious question on policy.
Not only would Obama looked evasive, he would have reminded voters of what they have come to like least about him. Obama’s tenure and re-election campaign have been narrowly partisan and attack-oriented despite a 2008 campaign that promised hope and healing.
A campaign surrogate may respond to policy questions with personal attacks on Romney and campaign ads can be aimed at disqualifying the challenger, but it’s hard for a president to do under the bright lights. Either Obama deliberately chose in the first debate to reject his campaign’s larger push that Romney is unfitness for office or he just couldn’t find a way to do it once he got out on stage.
But, with Democrats demanding a debate performance that matches-up with Obama’s bare-knuckled campaign and Romney having now passed the threshold of presidential plausibility, Team Obama is promising that the gloves will come off Tuesday on Long Island.
This is no easy task.
Democrats may have thrilled to Vice President Joe Biden’s jeers and sneers in Thursday’s debate with Rep. Paul Ryan, but those theatrics won’t work at all for Obama. Red meat can’t be on the menu especially since Romney is touting his bipartisanship. And neither does the format, answering questions from persuadable voters from the site of the debate, suburban Nassau County, N.Y.
The tactic that the president’s team is telegraphing ahead of the president’s do-or-die performance is that they will focus on Romney as a flip-flopper.
The attempted argument from Obama in the first debate was that Romney was a mimeograph of George W. Bush who wanted to take the nation backwards. The new line looks to be that Romney is lying about his policies and is really a radical conservative in disguise.
Romney’s primary election foes tried a similar argument, saying that the moderate from Massachusetts couldn’t be trusted because of his policy shifts prior to his unsuccessful 2008 candidacy. Romney moved right on social issues, global warming and other topics after he left office in the Bay State, moves his opponents said proved he couldn’t be trusted to hold the line if he got elected.
Obama, however, is focusing on Romney’s shift in tone from primary season to his more moderate pose for the general election. The argument is that Romney is really a radical conservative who is lying about his stances in order to spring a far-right agenda on an unsuspecting electorate.
The hope for Obama is that he can not only frighten moderate voters but also finally drive a wedge between Romney and the Republican base in order to lessen the enthusiasm gap between the parties. The message for the middle is that Romney is a stealth radical. The message for the right is that Romney is selling them out.
But the overall narrative is that Romney is not to be trusted and lacks the character to be president.
Obama’s test talking points so far have focused on the comments of a Romney adviser who compared the shift to the general election as an “Etch-a-Sketch” moment and Romney’s own line at a conservative conclave that he was “severely conservative” in Massachusetts.
Making the shift from character attacks based on Romney’s business record and personal finances to one based on his policy rhetoric is a tricky task late in the game, especially with president sliding in the polls. He can’t seem to be showing anxiety or desperation.
The greater danger in the shift, though, is that voters expect politicians to flip-flop a bit. In fact, they kind of like it. Obama needs to show that Romney’s shifts reveal an unfit character not just the expected political opportunism. Remember, Bill Clinton is beloved mostly for being a successful political opportunist.
Team Obama says the president is pumped up for the challenge. He’d better be. Launching a new line of attack as one drops in the polls and doing so in a setting unsuitable to personal swipes would be a tall order, even for a more artful debater than Obama.
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 http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.