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How Romney Can Change the Subject

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Looking at the broadest numbers in the presidential race, things don’t look too bad for Mitt Romney.

In the latest-available trend estimate (a fancy weighted average) of national polls compiled by HuffPost Pollster, Romney leads President Obama by  one-tenth of a percentage point, 45.8 percent to 45.7 percent—a statistically insignificant advantage, but his first lead in the poll average this year. RealClearPolitics.com’s more traditional average of national polls still shows Obama ahead, but by just 1.6 points, 46.6 percent to 45 percent. HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics both show Obama’s job-approval ratings as upside down: HuffPost Pollster finds that 49.2 percent disapprove of the president’s performance, while 45.9 percent approve; RCP has 47.1 percent of respondents disapproving, and 47.9 percent approving.

Yet, from watching the news or listening to chatter about the race, Romney doesn’t seem to be in that strong of a position. Even before his rather impolitic words in London, voters in swing states were being treated to attacks on his career at Bain Capital, news of his offshore personal investments, and calls for him to release more than two years of his income tax returns. In HuffPost Pollster’s trend estimate on his favorability, Romney has a 40 percent favorable rating and 45 percent unfavorable rating; RealClearPolitics shows his ratings even at 43.1 percent on both sides of the ledger. But more to the point, using HuffPost Pollster’s poll averages in individual states, Romney has a lead in only one of a dozen battleground states, North Carolina (by 2 points). Meanwhile, Obama is ahead in the other 11, with leads ranging from as small as 1  (Florida), 2 (Virginia), and 3 points (Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire), to as wide as 4 (Ohio), 5 (Michigan and Nevada), 6 (Minnesota and Wisconsin), and 7 points (Pennsylvania). It’s pretty clear the picture in the battleground states isn’t exactly the same as the one nationwide, and one might surmise that Obama seems to be faring better in the states where the advertising is the hottest and heaviest than he is overall.

My hunch is that the polling disparity has more to do with the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s business and personal finances, but I found it interesting that while sitting in a Nevada hotel room on a recent night watching a Law and Order: SVU marathon on cable (I couldn’t bear to watch the dreadful opening ceremonies of the Olympics) that I saw 12 Obama ads over several hours of viewing  and not a single Romney or pro-Romney ad. Apparently, his campaign has yet to begin making any local cable buys in swing states—a rather odd decision, in my view.

But Romney has a chance to hit the reset button with his vice presidential pick. It’s not that his choice itself is likely to make that much difference, unless it’s a bad one, but it is likely to begin a new and different narrative, shifting the focus away from his finances and his critical review of the United Kingdom’s handling of preparations for the London Olympics, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s highly unlikely that he will announce a game-changing pick—my odds are that there’s a 40 percent chance each of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio getting the nod and only a 20 percent chance of it being someone different—but it will change the subject, at least for a time.

Of course, Romney may surprise us, but his modus operandi certainly would argue for him picking someone who would be seen as a serious adult with strong executive experience, someone who emphasizes competence, not someone who would be seen as a blatantly political pick. It doesn’t appear that either Pawlenty or Portman would move the needle much, even in their home states. So the selection of either would be more of a move to reinforce a central message of competence and executive ability—Pawlenty as a successful two-term governor, Portman as a former budget director and U.S. trade representative on top of his service in Congress and doing legislative affairs in the George H.W. Bush White House. Arguably Pawlenty’s life story—son of a truck driver, growing up in the shadows of the South St. Paul stockyards—is an appealing story that would offset Romney’s more privileged background, while Portman might offer him more help starting from Day One in office thanks to extensive Washington experience that neither Romney nor Pawlenty possesses.

So don’t look for a game-changing running mate pick, but maybe one who could alter the current story line, which obviously hasn’t been a good narrative for Romney.

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