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The discussion on Monday morning’s “Daily Rundown” on MSNBC has already occurred hundreds of times this cycle and will occur again and again between now and November. Who is Mitt Romney?
Is the former Massachusetts governor the smart businessman who knows how to create jobs and fix the economy, or is he the rich investor who squeezed the last dime out of a business before shutting it down and throwing its workers out on the street?
Is he the phony, elitist flip-flopper who doesn’t have an agenda other than to get elected, the right-wing extremist and bully who will carry on the so-called war against women or the mainstream conservative who simply wants to control spending, hold the line on taxes and address the growth of entitlements to get the nation’s finances in order?
“Other people are defining [Romney] before he has the chance to define himself,” said the always astute Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director, during his program Monday and just after the president’s campaign had issued a two-minute video press release about Romney’s dealings at Bain Capital.
One of the nation’s most respected political reporters, the Washington Post’s Dan Balz, echoed that view when he wrote in Wednesday’s Post, “There is no mystery to the [Obama campaign] strategy underway: define Romney before he can fully pivot to general-election voters after a nomination battle that went on longer than expected ...”
Romney may well have failed to define himself as he would have liked to at this point, and that certainly is something his campaign needs to address. But I’m skeptical that it’s fatal. I’m not even certain the Republican nominee “needs to define himself quickly.”
Don’t get me wrong. The “define your opponent before he can define himself” argument is a compelling one when it comes to House races, low-visibility contests or even statewide contests when one of the candidates may not have the cash to compete. Voters usually don’t prefer candidates with a lot of negative baggage (though in the past three elections they have elected some “change” candidates with considerable personal baggage).
But presidential contests are different.
Unlike most elections in this country, by the end of the campaign, most voters are going to have watched Romney and President Barack Obama repeatedly, including in three live presidential debates that will draw tens of millions of viewers.
Those viewers will come to know the candidates (or believe that they know the candidates) and draw their own conclusions and assessments.
Obviously, a candidate can’t ignore how his opponent defines him. Ads and messages in the free media create impressions with voters — impressions that a damaged candidate must try to change. Because it’s easier to create impressions than to change them, Romney can’t simply give his opponents a free hand in defining him.