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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sharpening the Message for the Final Push

In the closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama and Mitt Romney are finding sharper, punchier ways to communicate their basic arguments.

Bumper-sticker politics has been around forever. But it often takes presidential candidates a while to hone their closing arguments.

Listening to both men recently in the debates and on the stump has made it clear that their advisers have worked hard to distill the campaign themes and attacks into a single word or phrase. The idea? Make sure everyone can understand what the simple message is.

Here is a sample from each side:

The Democrats

¶ “Romnesia” - At a rally on Friday morning in Fairfax, Va., Mr. Obama found a way to encapsulate his campaign's attack on Mr. Romney's attempts to moderate some of his more conservative positions. He accused Mr. Romney of forgetting his previous positions because he has a case of “Romnesia.”

The president was not the first to come up w ith the word - it has been bouncing around on Twitter for weeks. But it was a big hit with the crowd at George Mason University, and it will most likely find its way into many of the president's rallies.

¶ “Malarkey” - Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. used the word several times during his debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mr. Romney's running mate. He has continued to use it to attack the Republican ticket's veracity.

Campaigns can sometimes simply accuse their rivals of lying. But that can appear harsh to voters, especially in the waning days of a race, when people can tire of the negativity. A word like “malarkey” can seem like a more lighthearted way to say the same thing.

¶ “Sketchy Deal” - In his first debate with Mr. Romney, the president stumbled about for a concise way to question the Republicans' economic and tax plans. What came out was a long and rambling critique that for some was hard to follow and seemed defensive.

< p>In the second debate, Mr. Obama found his phrase. By calling Mr. Romney's tax and budget plans a “sketchy deal,” Mr. Obama condensed his argument into two words. Expect the president to continue repeating the term as he crosses the country.

¶ “Binders Full of Women” - During the second presidential debate, Mr. Romney's description of being handed “binders full of women” who were potential appointees when he was the governor of Massachusetts became an Internet sensation. But the president's team has used it in a serious way, as an easy catchphrase to signify his belief that Mr. Romney's policies would be bad for women.

The phrase gets huge applause at rallies and will no doubt remain in the Democrats' stump speeches in places where they think they can make gains among women.

The Republicans

¶ “Running on Fumes” - For the last week, Mr. Romney's campaign has been accusing the president of not having much of a second-term agenda. The idea is to highlight what Mr. Romney's organization believes is a backward-looking, defensive campaign by the president.

“Running on fumes” captures that sentiment and will most likely be repeated on the trail during the rallies ahead. The Republican campaign hopes people will be able to identify easily with the imagery of a White House that is out of ideas.

¶ “Last Four Years” - Several weeks ago, when Mr. Romney's campaign was down in the polls and struggling, his top advisers came up with a new formulation of Ronald Reagan's “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The adaptation: “We can't afford another four years like the last four years.”

Mr. Romney seems to like it. He used it during the first two debates, and he and Mr. Ryan regularly repeat it on the stump. It appears often in Republican advertisements and literature. That is not likely to change, as Mr. Romney's camp tries to persuade voters to make a change.

¶ “Hope Is Not a Strategy” - When it comes to foreign policy, Mr. Romney has accused the president of failing to achieve the grand vision he laid out in 2008. Speaking several weeks ago in Lexington, Va., Mr. Romney praised Mr. Obama's “hopes” for the Middle East, but said that “hope is not a strategy.”

The Republican campaign believes that wording nicely captures what it says is a feckless, ineffective foreign policy that has not achieved its goals. For a public that is more focused on domestic issues and less knowledgeable about national security, the phrase could help make Mr. Romney seem an acceptable commander in chief.

¶ “The Shrinking Campaign” - Mr. Romney and his allies have recently begun talking abut the “smallness” of the president's campaign. They say Mr. Obama's ads about Big Bird and catchy terms like “Romnesia” testify to a lack of big ideas.

On the stump, Mr. Romney has said his rival is reduced to “petty attacks and silly word games.” But the “shrinking campaign” is likely to be the way he talks about it in the last two weeks of the race.