As they did at their convention in Charlotte, N.C., Democrats inside and close to the campaign say the president and his surrogates will continue to frame the last four years as progress, acknowledge that millions of Americans are still struggling and work to convince them that the groundwork for an economic renaissance is in place. At the same time, they will keep criticizing Romney as unable to understand the day-to-day concerns of middle class households.
Romney will keep contending, as he did Monday while campaigning in Pueblo, Colo., that that's exactly backward. Obama loves government and wants higher taxes, Romney says, hurting rather than helping the middle class and keeping American business from creating the new jobs that everyone claims to desire.
And, Romney said, taking a shot at Obama's dealings with foreign troubles, U.S. foreign policy should not be conducted "at the mercy of events" overseas."
Ed Meese, Reagan's 1980 campaign chief of staff who would become attorney general, said recently that his boss ran a thematic campaign "against the welfare state and an accomodationist foreign policy." Reagan held up Carter as an embodiment of larger problems, Meese said, and convinced voters he could solve them.
Begala, who worked for Bill Clinton when the Arkansas governor unseated George H. W. Bush, recalled the buzz phrase of 1992: "It's the economy, stupid." The expression took off after being captured in a picture of a dry-erase board at a Clinton campaign office. "The reason we put that sign up wasn't for voters, it was for staff," Begala said. "That sign actually said, look, this race is about three things: real change vs. more of the same, it's the economy stupid, and don't forget health care.'"
Clinton led Bush from mid-summer through Election Day, regardless of whether independent Ross Perot was included as a choice. Begala said the campaign "knew it was over" the week after Labor Day.
Meese said the Reagan team wasn't confident of victory until the "weekend before the election."
Reagan pulled away after a single debate, held Oct. 27, a week before the election. Carter, Meese said, had "portrayed Reagan as this dangerous gunslinger from the West," successfully pulling Reagan down in the polls. But standing side-by-side with the president for 90 minutes, Reagan shattered that view and surged to a landslide win.
But with Carter pulling 41 percent of the vote, equal to his high heading into the meat of the campaign, the returns proved that the fundamentals of the race had never really changed: A clear majority of the electorate was always poised to fire the incumbent, who spent much of the election year dealing with a weak economy at home and the Iranian hostage crisis overseas.
Four years before Carter lost to Reagan, he won the popular vote over Ford by 2 percentage points, but he led from the start and ran his advantage in opinion polls to as much as 62-29 in the summer.
Even a few losing challengers have managed to seize the leads that have eluded Romney.
Republican Thomas Dewey led for almost the entire race before President Harry Truman pulled his memorable upset in 1948. John Kerry, another Massachusetts nominee, managed a few short-lived but clear leads over George W. Bush in 2004.
Begala said the 2004 race is perhaps the best historical example for Obama. Bush, whose Gallup job approval rating hovered around 50 percent for much of the year, controlled a tight race and was re-elected by the slimmest margin of any winning incumbent in American history.
Meese said Romney could benefit from three October appearances alongside Obama. But he also noted an important distinction: Campaigns weren't as long and as public 32 years ago.
"Ronald Reagan came into the fall much less known than Romney" is now, Meese said.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed from Washington.
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