WASHINGTON – The presidential race is entering the sultry summer, a final lull before the sprint to Election Day, with President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney neck and neck and no sign that either can break away.
As both candidates take a breather this week — Romney at his lakeside compound in New Hampshire and Obama at the Camp David presidential retreat — each sees problems he'd like to cure before Labor Day.
Obama and his allied groups aren't keeping pace with Romney and the Republican fundraising machine, and that places more pressure on the president to solicit huge sums himself. And the Supreme Court ruling that saved Obama's signature health care initiative last week didn't change the fact that most Americans don't like the law.
Romney's fundraising is impressive. But, in a sign of his hurdles, he's spending heavily in North Carolina, a state he almost certainly must win to have a chance at the White House. And some voters in key states appear uncomfortable with his record at a corporate restructuring firm before he became Massachusetts governor.
National polls suggest that Obama holds a small, perhaps meaningless lead as he awaits a new jobs report Friday that could bring bad news similar to last month's. Romney is offering few details of his own health and economic proposals for now, perhaps thinking outside forces will dislodge the president.
"When it's a 2 or 3 point race, that's not good for an incumbent president," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who is not affiliated with Romney's campaign. "Obama's political career is totally dependent on Angela Merkel holding the eurozone together," he said, referring to the German chancellor and Europe's financial woes, which could further hurt the U.S. economy.
An eventful June began badly for Obama. Anemic job-creation numbers followed news that Romney's campaign was raising more money than his. Things got worse when Obama told reporters, "The private sector is doing fine," a line now featured in countless GOP attack ads.
The month ended better for Obama. The Supreme Court struck down much of Arizona's strict anti-immigration law, a law the president opposed. Then the justices upheld the 2010 national health care law, a victory that nonetheless forces Obama to keep defending an unpopular mandate to obtain insurance or pay a fee, which the court labeled a tax.
"Last week was a reminder to the American people of who the president is fighting for," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. She cited "access to health care" and "immigration reform."
"But we're looking ahead, and we know this race is going to be really close," she said.
Obama on Thursday starts a two-day bus tour of Ohio and western Pennsylvania, a trip that partly mimics Romney's earlier and longer recent tour. The president might spend part of his drive time dialing for dollars. It's a chore all candidates face, but it poses new urgency for the president, because pro-Romney "super PACs" are raising far more campaign money than are Democratic groups.
In a leaked recording of a conference call Obama recently placed from Air Force One to top donors from 2008, the president implored them to match their earlier generosity. "We're going to have to deal with these super PACs in a serious way," Obama said, according to the Daily Beast.
Obama's team may find some comfort in knowing that since April 10, pro-Romney forces have spent more money on TV ads in North Carolina — $6.4 million — than in any other state except Florida and Ohio. Four years ago, Obama narrowly won North Carolina, which had voted Republican in seven straight presidential races. Most plausible scenarios for a Romney presidency require him to secure the state, the sooner the better.
The two campaigns, including their allied super PACs, are matching each other nearly dollar for dollar on TV ads in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Virginia and New Hampshire. Romney's forces are out-spending Obama's in Iowa and Michigan. The opposite is true in Colorado.
Romney is vacationing this week in New Hampshire, where family games might mix with talk of who his running mate should be. Romney, whose oversight of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games won wide praise, plans to attend the Summer Games later this summer in London.
He also will go to Israel, a trip that could appeal to Jewish voters and donors, and to conservatives who see Israel as a vital military and political ally.
Meanwhile, Republicans worry that Democrats are making headway with claims that Romney supported shipping jobs overseas when he headed a corporate restructuring firm called Bain Capital. His campaign says Romney did not oversee the export of U.S. jobs, although Bain at times invested in companies that helped pioneer outsourcing certain jobs to places such as India.
"It is a problem," Galen said of anti-Romney ads citing Bain and outsourcing. But he said the ads might have had greater impact if Obama could have saved them for September. Instead, Galen said, Democrats had to throw every weapon possible to counter the damage from Obama's "private sector is doing fine" remark.
It's not clear how June's biggest political headline — the Supreme Court's decision to uphold "Obamacare" — will play out in the campaign.
Congressional Republicans have jumped on the court's conclusion that a fee to be imposed on people who refuse to obtain health insurance is actually a tax. Romney tiptoes around the issue because the fee/tax is similar to one he imposed on Massachusetts residents who failed to buy medical insurance.
"Once the dust settles, the health care issue still serves as a way for both sides to motivate their respective bases, but it's hard to see it playing much of a role with the rest of the electorate," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican adviser who teaches political science at the University of Southern California. A more important issue, Schnur said, "is Bain vs. Solyndra."
Solyndra was a California-based solar panel manufacturer that received a large federal loan and big compliments from Obama before filing for bankruptcy.
"There's no question the Bain argument is working very effectively for Obama," Schnur said, "because it hits directly at voters' biggest concerns about a private sector-driven approach to the economy. But Solyndra accomplishes exactly the same thing for Romney, when he argues about too large a role for government."
The economy, Schnur said, will remain the top issue until polling places close on Nov. 6.
Summer vacations and Olympic Games might distract voters for the next several weeks, and political and legal activists might keep arguing over health care and immigration. But Romney is staking his candidacy on the claim that Obama has failed on the economy.
An election that seems destined to be tight will largely turn on voters' gut feelings about job security, the government's role in boosting or hindering employment, and candidates' visions for the nation's role in a global economy.