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Mitt Romney has already made a few big bets in his campaign for the White House. He wagered that the summer was more about fundraising than about introducing himself. And in picking Paul Ryan as a running mate, he bet that a bold choice would change the conversation and give him a bounce.

mitt's report card

Here are five more big, risky bets Romney is making right now.

1. Clinton is a GOP asset

Who would have imagined that Bill Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, would be the most praised and visible ex-president in Republican ads and talking points? But that’s exactly what has happened. And it’s odd. (Impeachment? What impeachment?) Even after Clinton’s star turn in Charlotte, where he took on Republicans like a folksy prosecutor, Romney is still name-dropping Clinton. A new Romney ad suggests that Clinton is just being “a good soldier” by stumping for Obama. The ad digs up Clinton’s 2008 fairy tale comment as if it were 2008. (Hillary Clinton called similar Romney ads that depicted her from 2008 a waste of money).

Romney’s Clinton argument is hard to figure. It seems to go something like this: “Obama is no Clinton so vote for Romney.” (Put that on a bumper sticker right now.) Romney has bet that elevating Clinton would diminish Obama in voter’s minds. But then Clinton, who is America’s most popular politician, torched Romney and House Republicans, delivering big in Charlotte. Notice the bow followed by a bromance hug? No daylight there. Hard to see how this works out well for Romney.

2. Black voters don’t matter that much

Aides to Romney say that he has reached out to African-American voters by visiting a predominantly black charter school in Philadelphia, speaking to the NAACP convention and by forming a sort of “black kitchen cabinet” of advisers and surrogates that include Rep. Allen West (Fla.), Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

Let’s review: Romney was booed at the NAACP. West said that he wants to lead blacks off of the Democratic plantation. (Slavery imagery never a good idea). And how many people, black or white, would recognize Scott or Carroll outside of their respective states? Not many. The campaign has set no goal post for what percentage of the black vote it hopes to get. (They have set it at 38 percent for Latino voters). In some ways, Romney is borrowing from John McCain’s playbook by largely ceding the black vote to Obama. (Privately, black Republicans say that Romney isn’t making a real play for African-Americans). Yet, with his birther joke, he is likely alienating black voters, something McCain tried to avoid.

In contrast, George Bush looked at the 2004 map and saw a pathway to the White House that included African-Americans. In Florida, Bush nearly doubled his support among black voters from 7 percent to 13 percent. In Ohio, he went from 9 percent to 16 percent. In Pennsylvania, 16 percent of the black vote went for Bush, up from 7 percent in 2000. In these states, as well as Virginia, blacks will likely make up 10 to 20 percent of the electorate. In short, in swing states, black voters matter. A lot.

3. Bush doesn’t matter that much

Bush has largely cooperated with Republican efforts to try and forget his years in the White House. He went back to Texas and has stayed out of politics. (Dick Cheney, not so much). For his part, Romney has dealt with the Bush legacy by barely saying his name. But that’s not the same as separation and daylight. Democrats will continue to link Romney to Bush. And voters still blame Bush for the country’s economic woes.

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By simply ignoring Bush, Romney is also ignoring what made Bush (and Clinton and Obama) successful presidential candidates. They all ran as a new brand of politician, distinct from their parties, distinct from the last standard bearer. Clinton went with New Democrat. Bush was a Compassionate Conservative. Obama, young, hip, urban, and African-American, embodied newness. He criticized the Clinton small ball approach and hugged Reagan. (That’s all changed, of course). Romney and Paul Ryan have vaguely referred to the Bush era in a mistakes-were-made sort of way. But their main bet is that ignoring Bush will make him go away. Democrats will make sure that doesn’t happen

4. Details don’t matter that much

In recent interviews, Romney and Ryan were both pressed on providing details about their budgets, specifically what tax loopholes they would close. Ryan said that those details would be hashed out with Congress once they made it to the White House. Romney said something about closing the loopholes on the high end, which is the same as saying nothing at all about closing tax loopholes. On the stump, Romney has tried to be more specific by outlining five steps to get the economy going. But those are largely vague as well. (One step calls for giving people and students the skills and schooling they need to compete in the job market. But how?)

On Iran, same thing: Romney says he would stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon by doing exactly what Obama has already done. What would make his approach any different? It’s unclear. True, Obama has been light on what a second term would look like. But he has a record that Republicans are happy to point out and are running against. Romney has clearly wagered that details get in the way and would open him up to criticism. (Or in the case of health care, open him up to seeming like a flip-flopper. For certain provisions, then against them.) The problem is he’s left Democrats an opening at filling in the blanks.

5. Debates change minds

Romney and his aides have October 3, the date of the first debate, circled in red on their calendar. They see it as a potential game-changer. And in the back of their minds, the Carter-Reagan debate in October 1980 is what they hope to replicate.

Carter was up in the polls going into the contest’s only debate, which was just a week before Election Day. But Carter lost the debate badly, invoking his daughter Amy in talking about nuclear weapons. And Reagan treated Carter like he barely belonged on stage — “There you go again,” was the phrase he used to dismiss Carter. Reagan then closed with the “are you better off” question.

Polls showed that viewers judged Reagan to be the clear winner; he went on to trounce Carter. And Romney, who spent last week on debate prep, is hoping for a similar path. But since when is it 1980? In this hyper partisan environment, it’s hard to imagine a post-debate poll that will show a clear winner. Besides, debates are like speeches — overhyped, overanalyzed and rarely game-changers.

nia malika henderson

Nia-Malika Henderson
The Washington Post

Published: Thursday, 13 September 2012