Depending on which Republican you ask, President Obama is either a power-hungry politician who will spew any lie to keep his iron grip on the Oval Office, or just a nice guy who is in over his head.
In the battle to tear down a president who remains personally popular with much of the electorate, a split is emerging in the GOP effort to define the president: Mitt Romney and his campaign have cast Obama as a Machiavellian mastermind, trying to dupe the country into supporting his socialistic plot. The second tack, taken by the Republican National Committee, is to portray Obama as a bumbling failure, a likable guy who just doesn’t have the skills to live up to his promises.
Both tactics are on full display this week, putting the party apparatus and its nominee at odds.
In Ohio Tuesday and again on CBS Wednesday morning, Romney amplified a central theme of his campaign: that Obama wants to fracture the country and cobble together enough of the broken pieces to eke out a second win. With incendiary gusto, Romney took that attack all the way up to 11.
“If you look at the ads that have been described and the divisiveness based on income, age, ethnicity and so-forth,” Romney told CBS. “It’s designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger and this is not, in my view, what the American people want to see.”
This is very different from what the RNC — and other Romney allies — have been saying. The same day Romney was talking about Obama’s scheming, Americans for Prosperity launched an ad that takes the other approach: insisting that Obama is not who he promised he’d be.
The AFP ad features independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but are now planning to vote for Romney. “I think he’s a great person,” says one. “I don’t feel he is the right leader for our country, though.”
This kind of soft-sell makes sense when you’re talking to voters who polls show still have positive feelings toward Obama. The PollTracker Average shows Obama with a favorability rating (just) above 50 percent, and the theory employed by many Republicans so far has been to not try and personally attack a man well-liked by voters for fear it could backfire.
AFP President Tim Phillips said his group’s ad tried to connect with voters who may be torn over Obama. “In the end, you can’t just talk to the base,” he told reporters. “You have to make sure that you’re talking to people that make the decisive difference.”
The RNC has used similar language in its anti-Obama TV ads.
“He tried, you tried. It’s OK to make a change,” the narrator says in one RNC ad that is in heavy swing-state rotation.
The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote the ad was especially dangerous to Obama supporters because it says “It’s OK to like the guy personally but not vote for him again.”
This is not a popularity contest. It’s OK to vote against the black guy. You gave him a shot. He gave it his best shot. He failed. And the most effective message is: “It’s OK to make a change” — and not be thought of as a racist.
Whether or not Capehart’s right, the difference between Obama as either a feckless dreamer or a sinister political genius is fairly vast. Republican observers acknowledge the disconnect but expect one of the tactics will win out.
“[Romney’s advisers] recognize that they’re not going to be able to make up the likability gap with Obama so part of it is bringing Obama down to our level. If I can’t go up, let’s bring him down,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. “I think they’re sending out a test message.”
O’Connell said Romney’s tried the RNC approach and appears to have abandoned it.
“They’ve said over and over enough that he’s a likable guy and the polls are static,” he said. “So now there’s a chance to say, ‘He’s slinging mud at us … this is not the guy of hope and change.’”
Republican strategist Rick Wilson said the divided message is thanks to the frenetic pace of the campaign.
“We’re moving a million miles an hour right now,” he said. “It’ll sync up, and frankly, Obama, Priorities, Cutter, Biden et al are making the case rather nicely for us.”
Wilson said Romney’s line of attack will win out in the end, which other political observers say could put Romney on the wrong side of independent voters.
“It’s sync, not schism,” Wilson said. “You’ll see less and less daylight on message by the end of the week, and none post-convention.”