On the U.S. campaign trail, things will only get nastier

There will be blood — all the way to Nov. 6

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The cover story in this week’s Maclean’s argues that Mitt Romney can win the presidency. Author Luiza Ch. Savage is right: While Canadians fixate on Barack Obama and his meteoric rise to power, the Republican standard bearer is within the margin of error in most national polls. His choice of Paul Ryan may have re-energized the conservative base both organizationally and financially.

Speaking of money, Romney is building a comparative advantage over Obama. With the rise of Super Pacs, campaign funds will play a larger role in this campaign than in 2008, especially as things kick into high gear during the final 60 days before the vote. Big Money close to former Bush operative Karl Rove and the billionaire Koch brothers won’t spare Obama any punches (including those under the proverbial belt).

The case for a Romney-Ryan win, though, has much to do with the economy. While Obama’s record is far from the unmitigated disaster the GOP describes, the unemployment rate is stuck at 8.3 per cent and the recovery remains sluggish. With three more job reports (September, October, November) before ballots are cast, it is safe to bet the economy will remain the No. 1 issue of the campaign.

Fiscal troubles at all levels of government are a major headache, but with the recovery slowing and Europe threatening to implode, chances that things will start to look up before November are thin. The debate over taxes, spending, the future of Medicare and Medicaid, the possible impact of Obamacare on job creation, and the general conservative narrative about Washington and overregulation all but assure the Obama administration is in for a rough ride.

There’s still a very concrete possibility of a second Democratic term, of course. Swing states, after all, still poll in favour of Obama. The president leads in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Colorado. Obama also enjoys the benefits and aura of the incumbent, who can set the agenda and make his case to the people from the highest of pulpits. So far, he has been maximizing this advantage.

As we approach the convention season (Republicans next week, the Democrats a week later), greater scrutiny will be directed at what each ticket will propose in terms of policies, and on the character of the candidates.  While issues and policies usually dominate, expect personality politics to emerge as a decisive factor.  Here, Obama may have a distinct advantage.

When Romney declared in 2011, one would have expected him to be the more moderate and reasonable conservative he was in Massachusetts. Considering the nature of today’s Republican Party, Romney was forced to run from his moderate record as governor, adopt social conservative and neo-conservative policies that seem out of the mainstream, and emphasize his record as a corporate executive at the company he founded, Bain Capital.

With fewer than 100 days to Nov. 6,  Romney’s narrative remains somewhat of a mystery. The controversy over his tax returns and his overseas accounts along with the attention Paul Ryan’s past writings and actions attract, make it even more difficult to get to know the real Romney. This indirectly influences his economic message.

Still, the election is  too early to call and there will be a fight to the finish. The new politics promised by Obama in 2008 have given way to hard- knock, Chicago-type politics. The Republicans have been known to engage in more, ruthless hardball politics than the Democrats.  However, judging by Obama-Biden campaign tactics so far, and the fact the  GOP ticket  has begun to whine, this  campaign will become nastier.

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