State of the race favors Romney ahead of health law scramble

“This won’t be a reset. This will be an intensification of trends that are very good for us.”

-- An adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to Power Play on how events this week will shape the race.

The stakes this week for President Obama are titanic.

After a rocky start to his re-election effort, Obama will this week have to deal with his greatest political liability, his 2010 health law, try to whip up another showdown with Congress, dive into the year’s main wedge issue of illegal immigration and worry over his controversial attorney general whose own battle with lawmakers over secret documents has now landed in the president’s lap.


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    With his challenger on the rise, his own clout waning and the national mood souring again, this is an unhappy time for Obama to face these hurdles.

    The hope for Obama’s campaign team must be that this chaotic week will mark the end of a difficult spring and clears the decks for the remaining 19 weeks of the general election. Republicans, meanwhile, hope that losses this week set a new baseline for the embattled president’s woes.

    The biggest issue facing Obama is the Supreme Court decision on his health law, an unpopular program that may be struck down or upheld in full, or have its central funding mechanism – the mandatory purchase of insurance – ripped out.

    Power Play holds that the president is least harmed for November if the entire law is pitched so that he neither has to defend nor repair the legislation. But when your best-case scenario involves the highest court in the land tossing out the central accomplishment of your term in office, your options aren’t very attractive.

    Obama opted not to move to the middle after his 2010 shellacking, but instead tried to shift the blame for a weak economy to Republicans. As the president and his team like to do, they went on offense, rather than recalibrating their strategy.

    While Team Obama imagined casting the president as a tenacious fighter, it was also a guarantee that he would accomplish nothing of substance on the domestic front for two years. That leaves the president looking like someone who is bogged down and overwhelmed.  He may be effective at casting blame on Congress, but that does nothing to reduce the image of a president who is simply stuck.

    For a nation that is increasingly pessimistic about the future after a few months of modest optimism, stuck is not the best adjective for an incumbent president to be carrying.

    Also this week, the Supreme Court ruled on Obama’s effort to prevent a crackdown on illegal immigration in Arizona. The court struck down three provisions but upheld, for now, a fourth provision requiring police to check immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.

    While there may be support for the president’s executive action offering a temporary amnesty and work visas for illegal immigrants who came to the country as children, the Arizona law is also very popular.

    Later on this week, Obama also faces a House of Representatives vote on whether to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for not turning over documents relating to a botched gunrunning sting that ended up arming the killers of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Obama has moved to protect Holder by invoking executive privilege. More friction, more stuck.

    There’s also the fact that at the end of this week the funding for highways and other transportation will dry up, but Obama simultaneously wants to pick a fight with Congress over extending a Democratic program that subsidizes new student loans.

    The president needs the transportation bill since the last thing he wants to see is summer road crews laying off workers just as unemployment is worsening. But the president also has his political agenda of trying to show himself fighting for parts of his base coalition – in this case college students.

    Today’s Washington Post editorial page counseled Obama to ditch the student loan subsidy and focus on getting the highway bill through Congress. But the president has clung tightly to his belief that he is best served by being seen in constant conflict with House Republicans.

    But that’s all chicken feed compared to the health law. What the court decides about the president’s program for a new health-insurance entitlement will substantially remake this race.

    So where do we stand now?

    Mitt Romney’s chances at becoming just the fifth challenger in a century to unseat a sitting president are best summed up by the distance between two unrelated statistics: his personal favorability among voters and the overall sense of the direction of the country.

    These are answers to the two driving questions of a presidential re-election: Would voters like to keep what they’ve got and is the alternative plausible.

    Romney’s favorables have floated up, taking him now to 42.9 percent in the Real Clear Politics average. And after some late-winter optimism on the economy was dashed, the average of respondents who think the country is on the right track slipped back down to an anemic 31.3.

    The gap between them is currently 11.6 points On May 18, the gap stood at 6.7 points. A month before that, it was 3.3 points.

    Going into this pivot week, Romney has the momentum and, more importantly, he has been mostly able to lay low. Rather than a summer news lull, in which the challenger is in the spotlight, the big stories keep on coming, most of them unhappy and most of them involving Obama.

    At some point, Romney will face the glare, but not this week.

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