TAMPA--As the newly-minted Republican presidential nominee—with his campaign treasury brimming with millions of dollars, and a vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, who has energized his conservative base—Mitt Romney starts the final sprint to the White House with two objectives, one strategic and one thematic.
He will focus on a handful of battleground states, led by Florida and Ohio and including Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Nevada, Virginia, and Wisconsin, where he is convinced the race will be won or lost. Romney and Ryan will start out their post-convention campaign in Virginia on Friday, and will move on to Ohio and Florida Saturday.
And Romney is expected to emphasize the message that has propelled him this far—the argument that the Obama administration has let the country down by failing to create enough jobs and improve the economy.
"The race is dead even and has every potential to remain dead even until October," says a senior Romney adviser. At that point, a series of three debates between Romney and Obama will be pivotal, the adviser says. And the Romney inner circle expresses confidence that their candidate will cement his victory in those encounters by underscoring that Obama, while a decent and likable man, has failed in his fundamental responsibility to improve the economy.
Romney and his advisers felt even more confident in this political assessment when the government reported this week that unemployment rates increased in 193 large metropolitan areas from June to July, while those rates fell in only 114 areas and remained unchanged in 66.
These "grim unemployment numbers are just the latest evidence that President Obama's economic policies have disappointed middle-class Americans," Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said Thursday. "After nearly four years in office, the president has left families struggling with unemployment on the rise in cities across the country and an economy stuck in neutral."
The national unemployment rate increased in July from to 8.3 percent.
Democratic and Republican strategists agree on another crucial element in the race—that Romney is doing extremely poorly among African Americans, Latinos and single women, while he is ahead among white voters.
Romney strategists don't think they can generate much support among black voters in a contest with the first black president. A recent poll put him behind among African American voters, 94 percent to 0. But they argue that Romney can do better among Latinos and single women by emphasizing the economic message that Obama's policies have resulted in widespread unemployment and under-employment that has been particularly harmful to people in those groups. This argument is also expected to help Romney among young voters who are in economic trouble and whose enthusiasm for Obama has waned since 2008.
In addition, Romney will go all-out to increase his margin among whites with the economic critique of Obama, and also with conservative arguments that the president has allowed the deficit to grow dangerously and has pushed for a more federal intervention in the economy and society overall.
Beyond this, Democrats see a racial element in Romney's claim, debunked by independent fact checkers, that the Obama administration is weakening work requirements for welfare recipients. Democratic leaders such as party chairwoman Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz say Romney is trying to appeal to white voters who resent what they perceive as government giveaways to blacks.
Overall, Romney's strategists are increasingly persuaded that the 2012 campaign will resemble the campaign of 1980, when Republican challenger Ronald Reagan was locked in a tight race with Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter until the very end. In the final days, Reagan's arguments, coupled with a sour economy and setbacks for the United States internationally, persuaded Americans not only that Carter didn't deserve a second term but that Reagan was an acceptable alternative.
Romney hasn't turned that corner. But his aides predict that it will happen, probably in the waning days of the campaign when late-deciding Americans—especially crucial independents and swing voters in the battleground states—settle on their choice of who should lead them for the next four years.