Obama, Romney square off with contrasting strategies

WASHINGTON – Wednesday night’s presidential debate will feature two candidates with very different strategic imperatives talking, to some extent, to different audiences.

President Obama holds a small, but stubborn, lead in the race nationally, according to every major public poll. Of equal significance, Obama holds a larger lead in some key battleground states, particularly Ohio and Wisconsin, leaving Mitt Romney a perilously narrow potential path to a majority.

Obama’s strategic opportunity in the debate is to try to press home arguments that would help him nail down one or two more key states.

Romney’s task is simple to state, but hard to do: Turn the trend around. He needs to win over the dwindling number of undecided voters – polls indicate that only 10%-15% remain even potentially open to persuasion – but also to change the minds of some voters currently leaning Obama’s way.

To do that, he has to get over two major hurdles: Polls show that many voters say he lacks understanding of their problems and a significant number feel he has not offered enough specifics on his campaign plans.

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[Republican partisans have argued the polls results have a Democratic “skew.” In 2004, Democrats made the exact same argument in the other direction. The outcome proved them wrong.]

Romney trailed Obama by a couple of points in mid-August, before the two parties’ conventions. In the aftermath of the conventions, that deficit widened to five or six points. Then, just as Obama’s post-convention bounce began to recede, the news of Romney’s remarks to a fundraising lunch about 47% of voters being dependent on government bolstered Obama yet again.

The most recent polling suggests that the extra edge Obama enjoyed after the 47% controversy may have begun to fade and that the race has once again settled to about a three- or four-point margin.

Romney recently took aim at one of his major problems, the perception that he lacks understanding of average Americans, with a new ad in which he speaks directly to voters, saying that “too many Americans are struggling” and that he and Obama both care about the poor. The difference, he said, is that “my policies will make things better.”

Focus groups by GOP pollsters and polling by Vanderbilt University’s ad rating project have shown that ad could be effective in moving voters toward Romney. He’s likely to stress the same message in Wednesday’s debate.

The other major weak spot has been specificity. In the latest Marquette University poll in Wisconsin, for example, voters by 28%-69% said Romney had not provided enough details on what he would do as president. For Obama, the margin was much closer, 46%-51%. Similar results have come in other polls, both nationally and in battleground states.

All campaign long, Romney has avoided answering questions about key parts of his plan – how he would keep his proposed tax cut from ballooning the deficit, for example, or what he would do to replace Obama’s healthcare law after he repeals it, as he has pledged to do. Top aides have said that a campaign is “not an appropriate time” to discuss such specifics.

Obama’s campaign has hammered at that weak spot, offering their own projections to fill in the blanks Romney has left.

While Romney has to convey a sense of empathy while simultaneously trying to satisfy voters who want more specifics, Obama likely will try to press home his advantage with some key blocs of voters.

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Since mid-August, two groups have helped fuel his rise in the polls: Latinos and blue-collar women.

Since mid-August, Obama has gone from about 60% support among Latinos to 66% in Gallup’s polling. More significantly, the share of Latinos who say they are “certain” to vote has risen from 61% to 71%, narrowing the gap with other racial and ethnic groups. Other polls have found a similar trajectory and an even larger lead for Obama among that voter bloc.

A large Latino turnout remains key to winning some of the remaining battleground states for Obama, particularly Nevada, Florida and Colorado. If his lead holds in Ohio and Wisconsin, winning any one of those states would be enough for victory.

So don’t be surprised if Obama finds an opportunity to talk about his move to end deportations for young, illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children and contrast his stand with Romney, who took tough positions against illegal immigration during the Republican primaries. His health reform law also remains considerably more popular among Latinos than among voters as a whole.

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Blue-collar, white female voters have been key to Obama’s margin in Ohio and Wisconsin, the two big, Midwestern battlegrounds. Obama enjoys a 56%-39% lead among women in Ohio, according to the latest NBC/Wall St. Journal/Marist University poll. Blue-collar women have also been key to Obama’s chances in Iowa.

Obama has gained ground in part by emphasizing Republican efforts that could limit women’s access to contraception or raise its price. That issue also has helped him with women in Virginia and Colorado, where the campaign has aimed more at suburban, college-educated women.

Finally, older voters have been a major focus of both campaigns. Voters over 65 form the core of Romney’s support. Obama almost certainly won’t win a majority of them, but holding down the Republican margin could deliver some key states to him, particularly Florida.

Romney likely will emphasize his argument that Obama has financed his new healthcare law in part by limiting the amount of money the government would spend under Medicare. Obama has countered by campaigning against the Medicare reform plan backed by Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan, which would convert the system from an open-ended entitlement to a voucher system for people who are now 55 or younger.

Back in August, Republican strategists argued that they could fight the Medicare issue to a draw, neutralizing an advantage that Democrats have long enjoyed on that subject. Polling in recent weeks suggests Obama continues to have an edge on the question of who would better protect Medicare. He’s likely to look for an opportunity to raise the issue again tonight.

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