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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Focus of Presidential Campaign Shifts Away From Economy


Actually, it's not the economy. At least not this week.

A presidential campaign that Republicans wanted to be focused relentlessly on President Obama's job-creation record seems to be about almost everything else at the moment.

In part that's the result of a monthslong effort by the Obama campaign to shift attention to Mitt Romney's wealth and business record.

In part it's the result of what now appears to be a strategic shift by Mr. Romney, who had spent much of this year hammering home his credentials as Mr. Economic Fix-It. His choice of Paul D. Ryan as his running mate has elevated conservative approaches to Medicare and budget cutting to the forefront of the election debate, crowding out a more direct focus on jobs and economic growth. It suggests that Mr. Romney is more interested in motivating his base than winning an economic argument for the allegiance of a dwindling number of undecided and ind ependent voters.

His current advertising appeal to frustrated middle-class voters is primarily the charge, much debunked by fact-checkers, that Mr. Obama is trying to make it easier for the poor to get welfare checks and escape work requirements. He has chosen to engage in a debate with the White House about campaign tactics, another diversion from what had been his core message.

And in part the shift away from the economy is the result of self-inflicted problems by Republicans.

Representative Todd Akin's statements about rape and pregnancy injected social issues more deeply into the campaign on terms advantageous to Democrats and put the Republican Party's hopes of holding down the substantial advantage held by Democrats among women voters that much further out of reach. And disclosure this week of skinny-dipping and other antics by House members during a trip to Israel last year undercuts the idea that the latest crop of Rep ublicans came to Washington to change business as usual.

Liberals can hardly believe their good luck. Conservatives are starting to express concern.

“There's no question that some events outside the Obama campaign's control and some within it have allowed them to change the subject,” said Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, the conservative economic policy advocacy group. “They're adept at seizing every opportunity not to talk about jobs and the economy.”

The Romney campaign, Mr. Chocola said, should intensify its focus on core economic issues, in part by tying them directly to entitlement reform and reining in government spending.

“The Romney campaign has to be very focused at linking everything to the economy, and I'm not sure they are doing that all day, every day,” he said.

August is often a silly season in politics, when the campaign equivalent of Shark Week can get outsize attention. Presidential campaigns almo st always air a full range of topics at various stages before reverting back to the big issues facing the nation as Election Day approaches. And for all the attention that the latest tactics and gaffes get in Washington and among partisan obsessives, there's no evidence that voters are any less concerned about the economy than they have been for the last five years.

Still, the dissipation of focus on what Republicans believed â€" and Democrats feared â€" would be a lethal issue for Mr. Obama's hopes of a second term has been striking. Mr. Obama got only a single question about it at his news conference on Tuesday - after talking about Medicare, Mr. Akin's comments and Mr. Romney's tax returns - and he deflected it by suggesting that it was up to Republicans in Congress to act on his proposals to help homeowners and address the budget standoff.

“In terms of the economy, I would love to say that when Congress comes back â€" they've got a week or 10 days before th ey go out and start campaigning again â€" that we're going to see a flurry of action,” Mr. Obama said. “I can't guarantee that.”

Even if his economic message is no longer front and center, Mr. Romney continues to press his case on the campaign trail that his business experience qualifies him to get the economy creating jobs again and that Mr. Obama does not understand private enterprise.

“I've had the experience of working in the real world, if you will, the private sector, and seeing how enterprises get started and how they change the lives of people when they're successful â€" and how, by the way, they're not successful and how we lose jobs,” Mr. Romney told a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire recently.

The Republican convention next week will give Mr. Romney a chance to bring the spotlight back to the economy, even as he presses a broader case against Mr. Obama. Monthly unemployment reports coming out the first weeks of September, October and November will amount to impartial scorecards of progress on job creation, or lack thereof, before Election Day. And the presidential debates in October will no doubt provide ample opportunity for both candidates to make their economic stewardship arguments.

But heading into the formal start of the general election, Mr. Obama and his allies have shown that with a little luck they are capable of redefining the terms of the campaign even in the face of a lackluster economy.