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Sunday, October 7, 2012

For Both Campaigns, Time to Fine-Tune Their Messages


Presidential candidates win when they adapt. And that is exactly what Mitt Romney and President Obama are each trying to do.

The debate last Wednesday, events in the Middle East and the better-than-expected jobs report on Friday are forcing the two campaigns to adjust to a new reality in the final month before Election Day. Neither can simply follow its playbook and expect to succeed.

Here is a look at how the dynamics have shifted, and how the candidates are expected to react in the week ahead:

UNEMPLOYMENT For more than a year, Mr. Romney's most consistent economic argument was a simple one: unemployment had stubbornly remained above 8 percent for Mr. Obama's entire presidency. That is a firing offense, Mr. Romney said again and again.

“We've had 43 straight months with unemployment above 8 percent,” Mr. Romney said in his closing statement at the debate on Wednesday.

Now, though, Mr. Romney will have to adjust his stump speech and his ads. The drop in unemployment to 7.8 percent robs him of the simple argument he has been making and will require a new line of attack.

Mr. Romney's initial attempt to adjust his message was to question the statistic. Speaking at an event in Virginia on Friday, he said that people who “just drop out altogether” from the work force had artificially lowered the rate.

But that technical explanation is not a rallying cry. So Mr. Romney has seized on a slightly different jobs message that does not dwell so much on the current unemployment rate. The new approach will be on display in rallies this week.

“There were fewer new jobs created this month than last month,” Mr. Romney said in Abingdon, Va. “We don't have to stay on the path we've been on. We can do better.”

DEBATE TACTICS For Mr. Obama, the new reality was created moments after the debate ended on Wednesday night. His lackluster performance slo wed his momentum and raised questions about his strategy.

For Mr. Obama's campaign, the question is how to adapt. Senior strategists on Thursday hinted strongly that Mr. Obama would be much more aggressive in his next debate - an approach he has already begun taking at rallies in the last several days.

Campaign advisers say Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will reinforce that shift in his debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan on Thursday. And the campaign's allies have already begun calling Mr. Romney a serial liar - a message that will continue in ads this week.

A new video released by Mr. Obama's campaign on Sunday is an example of the new strategy. Called “Cameras,” the video argues that Mr. Romney's debate performance was a series of lies that distorted his record.

But the biggest challenge for Mr. Obama's campaign may be how to respond if polls this week show that his campaign has lo st the momentum it seemed to have at the end of September.

LIBYA AND THE MIDEAST Both campaigns have long argued that the economy is the biggest issue of the campaign. But the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, as well as the broader instability in the Middle East, has changed that dynamic a bit.

Mr. Romney appears ready to adjust his message by seizing on the Libya situation to question the president's judgment and leadership. He plans to deliver a foreign policy speech on Monday at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

He clearly hopes to put Mr. Obama on the defensive over the attacks on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The question is whether he can turn that argument into a broader indictment of the president's foreign policy.

For Mr. Obama, the overseas events also present the need to adapt. His campaign will need to find answers for the situation in Libya and the Middle East while more aggressively making the wi der case for his leadership abroad.