As first debate looms, what to expect from Obama and Romney

With just 46 days to go, the presidential race has entered the hammer-and-tongs phase. From here on, it’s a day-to-day messaging war, with President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney taking dramatically different views on how the fall campaign conversation should be framed.

Here’s a quick look at the topics that each of the two sides would like to take up in the 12 days before Oct. 3, the date of the first presidential debate.

POLITICAL CARTOONS: Horsey’s Top of the Ticket

Obama would like to talk about:

The 47%: Romney’s videotaped comment about the “victim” 47% of Americans who are dependent and “unwilling to take responsibility for their lives.” Romney has tried to remold his language (secretly videotaped in May) and change the subject. But, so far, he has not succeeded in recovering from a misstep that seemed to reveal him as out of step with average Americans.

Taxes: How his Republican challenger paid roughly 14% of his income in 2011 in income taxes, less than a lot of working-class and middle-class Americans. Obama would add, whenever possible, that Romney wants to guarantee lower taxes for himself and others in the top tax brackets by extending Bush-era tax cuts for upper-income Americans.

Taxes, Part Two: Where are the rest of your tax returns, Mitt? Obama, or more likely surrogates, will ask that one early and often. The Democrats would love to continue the discussion of why Romney has released only two years of returns (and what he’s “hiding”), when most recent candidates released five years or more.

Medicare, Democratic version: The Republicans will take the health insurance program and turn it into a voucher system, which won’t ensure a minimum level of care, the way traditional Medicare has.

Foreign affairs: Oh, and by the way, how about a few questions on foreign policy experience. Obama would love to talk about how Romney stumbled in his road trip to England and Israel this summer. Remember how one tabloid called the Republican “Mitt the Twit” for doubting British Olympic preparations?

Remember how Palestinians fumed when the candidate suggested that Israel’s economic triumphs were due to its superior culture? His cherry on that little sundae might be a reminder that Romney failed to mention our men and women in the military during his convention speech. And then there was his much-panned quick-draw response to attacks on Americans in Libya.

DEBATE QUIZ: Who said what?

Romney would like to talk about:

Jobs, jobs, jobs: How jobs just won’t come back the way they have in previous recoveries. The unemployment rate has lingered over 8% for 43 months and no number of hidden-camera videos and other distractions can change that. And actually the jobless figure would be substantially higher if not for the many workers who left the rolls after giving up hope of finding a job.

The burning Mideast: Our Libyan ambassador and three other Americans are killed and the consulate in Benghazi is overrun, and the president and his team have no power to stop it. Why can’t the Obama administration rein in the nasty elements of the Arab Spring that he told us would be such a positive force for the world? (The uncertain political impact of events in the Mideast makes it that rare thing: fodder for both sides.)

Gas prices: They hover over $4 a gallon in some areas, roughly double what they were when Obama they came into office. It might be hard to directly prove his Obama’s culpability. But he’s the man in charge, so he owns all the conditions confronting the American people.

Medicare, Republican version: “Obamacare” cuts $718 billion out of Medicare over 10 years and service to the elderly suffers. The president says he is prolonging the life of the Medicare trust fund and only taking money for hospitals and other providers. But Romney argues that Obamacare will reduce benefits and cut choices for healthcare consumers.

Obama’s untrustworthiness: The country is suffering and this guy is hanging out with Beyonce, Jay Z and David Letterman. He doesn’t seem too concerned with the dire straits the country has been gripped by for much of his tenure. Nearly four years into his term, it’s time to try something new.

Overarching all of the specific theme arguments, both sides will work hard every day to seize control of the broader narrative. Voters will hear the Democrats pressing the idea that Romney is fumbling and bumbling his way to defeat.

The left’s TV outlet, MSNBC, spent much of Friday afternoon with stories that depicted Romney as a buffoon who can’t get his campaign on track. Comedian Chuck Nice, visiting MSNBC host Al Sharpton, said Romney had become an easy butt of jokes. “Mitt Romney is to comedy what Mr. Softee is to ice cream,” Nice said, “so easy to serve up!” The Dems will keep highlighting the several state polls where Obama has managed to gain measurable leads.

The Republicans, in contrast, continue to emphasize the razor-thin margin between the two candidates in national polls and the eternity, in political terms, that remains before Nov. 6.

In the GOP construct, the race remains wide open and the undecided Americans who will decide the election won’t take a really close look until the October debates. When they check in, they will like what they see in Romney and be assured he is the right man to get the country running again. While MSNBC makes Mitt a joke, Fox News styles the president as a threat who is ever probing for ways to expand the role of government and to apologize for American values.

It’s political messaging, folks. Nobody said it would be pretty.


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