General election battle lines are taking shape between President Obama and likely Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Romney is sticking with his longstanding attack on the president as someone not up to the huge job of turning around the economy.
But the Obama campaign has recently changed its message: Instead of portraying Romney as a flip-flopping, say-anything politician, it is now arguing that the former Massachusetts governor is a man with extreme positions far outside the American mainstream.
And it’s an opportune time to re-frame the debate, said Grant Neeley, who teaches political science at the University of Dayton.
“Because a lot of the voters haven’t paid any attention,” said Neely. “If you’re a moderate voter you may not have paid any attention to the Republican nomination process.”
Some recent examples: On Sunday, Obama adviser David Axelrod told CNN that Romney’s economic policy included “slashing taxes at the top for the very wealthy, cutting Wall Street loose to make its own rules, cutting the investments we need in education, research and development, energy, the things we need to grow.”
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden offered his take on Romney’s foreign policy while speaking at New York University. “Americans know we can’t go back to the future, back to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone, shout to the world you’re either with us or against us, lash out first and ask the hard questions later, if they get asked at all.”
And last week, Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told MSNBC’s “The Last Word” that Romney “was the most extreme candidate on immigration in the Republican primary.”
For the Obama campaign, it’s important not to let Romney downplay, ignore, or change things he said during the primary as he now looks for votes from independents.
But in the battleground state of Ohio, which Obama carried in 2008 but which also sealed Republican President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, there’s mixed reaction to this new portrayal of Romney.
“I don’t think he’s a radical conservative,” Jennifer Lenos, 42, said of Romney. “No, not at all.”
Lenos, an independent who said she did not vote for Obama in 2008, said she’s not sure what to believe about Romney.
“I think that he wants to come across as more conservative than perhaps he is. I think he’s very savvy and I think that if he’s smart he will, you know, cast his net pretty wide and try to bring everyone together,” said Lenos, a paralegal.
Katie Schwable, 18, a college student and former supporter of one-time Romney rival Rick Santorum, said she is looking forward to her first general election, and plans to back Romney.
“I’d say he’s not as Republican as some of the other candidates, but he’s definitely a Republican. I wouldn’t consider him a moderate. But I don’t think I’d call him an extremist,” said Schwable.
Phil Dreety, 60, works at a downtown Dayton pawn shop. He’s a proud Democrat who said he will proudly vote again for President Obama. But he has some doubts about whether voters will buy the portrayal of Romney as extreme.
“I think that’s a misconception that they’re trying to portray of him because he had been former governor of Massachusetts and you know, he has the issue with the healthcare laws there and there’s a number of things, you know. He has a solid business background,” said Dreety.
Dreety classified Romney as a moderate to conservative politician who panders to conservatives.
Don Little, 65, retired from the Air Force, is an Obama supporter and volunteer. Speaking at Obama 2012 offices in Dayton, he too seemed a bit perplexed by the campaign’s focus on Romney as an extreme conservative.
“I think he’s not necessarily an extremist, but an opportunist,” said Little.
But as the discussion turned to Romney’s opposition to federal aid for the auto industry, Little said: “If I was an autoworker and the way he feels about letting it just go down the drain, I would feel that’s an extreme, that’s an assault on my lifestyle, that’s an assault on my income, that’s an assault on my family.”
Of course, Little’s vote isn’t one the president needs to worry about, but the Obama campaign is hoping that independent voters will eventually see Romney that same way.