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But unlike Sen. John Kerry, who ignored attacks on his military record during his 2004 presidential campaign, Romney’s campaign has already demonstrated that it won’t hesitate to answer attacks. And the former Massachusetts governor certainly will have the time and resources to define himself (including at his party’s national convention) and to address the caricatures being drawn of him by his opponents. He need not panic.
Because he accepted public campaign funds, GOP nominee Bob Dole lacked resources over the summer of 1996 to respond to President Bill Clinton’s attacks, and that allowed the Democrats to define for voters the election’s alternatives even before the Republican convention formally nominated Dole.
But Dole had another problem in that race, which was even more difficult to overcome than his cash-starved campaign: Clinton was popular and largely successful.
The unemployment rate in 1996 was 5.4 percent, down from 7.5 percent, when Clinton won the White House. And the president’s job approval, according to Gallup, remained in the mid- and upper 50s throughout the year. Clinton was in an ideal position to seek re-election and a far stronger position than Obama now finds himself.
Clearly, Romney will need to cross some threshold of acceptability as a potential president. Voters aren’t going to send just anyone to the White House. But when November rolls around, the question of who Romney is might not be nearly as important to voters as how well Obama has done.
In other words, if November brings a “choice election,” then the details of who Romney is will matter a great deal. But if voters decide that the crucial question is whether the president deserves a second term — if they see November as a referendum on the president’s performance during the past four years — then Romney is simply less important in the calculation, as long as he crosses that threshold of acceptability.
Of course, if voters ultimately do regard the election as “choice,” that automatically means that they are not so dissatisfied with Obama that they are actively looking for a reason to fire him. And in that case, it might not matter a great deal what they think of Romney. They are likely to vote to re-elect the president.
For now, the president remains in considerable trouble. And with economic clouds on the horizon here and in Europe, those re-election troubles could grow.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.