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Can Mitt Romney Return to ‘Referendum’ Message?

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And it isn’t as if the president will simply allow Republicans to define him as they wish. He’ll fight back, as he did in his April 3 speech when he said, “I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem.”

“I’ve eliminated dozens of programs that weren’t working and announced over 500 regulatory reforms that will save businesses and tax payers billions,” Obama said before asserting, “I know the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington, which is why I have cut taxes for small-business owners 17 times over the last three years.”

Obviously, Republicans will counter that he has governed very differently, but they may well be underestimating the appeal of the president’s vision, especially to people who have come to rely on government programs.

Second, Romney is particularly ill-suited to make the “choice of visions” argument, and Obama is particularly able to make that case.

“Mitt is a problem-solver, and economic mechanic, a turnaround guy,” one GOP strategist who isn’t part of Romney’s campaign but is a strong supporter of the likely Republican nominee told me recently. “Nobody can beat Obama on vision, hope and change,” he added.

Remember, Ronald Reagan, who was skilled at communicating an appealing conservative vision, didn’t win the election in 1980 because he won “a choice of visions.” He won because the Carter presidency was a disaster, both in terms of the economy and foreign policy. Reagan won a referendum election, not a vision election. (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”)

Romney now seems to have the opportunity to make the 2012 election about the president’s performance.

With the GOP race now history, the former Massachusetts governor doesn’t need to prove his conservatism, and that means he can return to his initial approach of trying to make the November election a referendum on the past four years.

More importantly, perhaps, the latest jobs numbers — only 120,000 jobs created last month — and the uptick in applications for jobless benefits in March (up to 380,000, much higher than anticipated) create doubts about the recovery and an opportunity for Romney to return voters’ focus to Obama.

Improving economic numbers played into the president’s hand and forced Romney to look for a different message than his initial one about jobs and leadership. But if jobs numbers going forward raise new questions about the economy, he may just find that making the 2012 contest a referendum on Obama’s performance is both the easiest and best way to win the White House, no matter how much conservatives long for a “big” election about values and the proper role of government.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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