Having survived a summer of attacks but still trailing the president narrowly in most national polls, Mr. Romney’s campaign remains focused intently on the economy as the issue that can defeat Mr. Obama. But in a marked change, Mr. Romney has added a harder edge to a message that for most of this year was focused on his business and job-creation credentials, injecting volatile cultural themes into the race…

Many [undecided] voters are economically disaffected, and the Romney campaign has been trying to reach them with appeals built around an assertion that Mr. Obama is making it easier for welfare recipients to avoid work. The Romney campaign is airing an advertisement falsely charging that Mr. Obama has “quietly announced” plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries, a message Mr. Romney’s aides said resonates with working-class voters who see government as doing nothing for them.

The moves reflect a campaign infused with a sharper edge and overtones of class and race. On Friday, Mr. Romney said at a rally that no one had ever had to ask him about his birth certificate, and Mr. Ryan invoked his Catholicism and love of hunting. Democrats angrily said Mr. Romney’s remark associated him with the fringe “birther” camp seeking falsely to portray Mr. Obama as not American…

“These folks know they are not happy with what Obama has done, but they are struggling between, ‘I voted for him, I liked him, but he’s not getting the job done,’ ” said Carl Forti, political director for American Crossroads. “That’s where Mitt needs to take advantage.”

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Four years after the nation enthusiastically embraced his presidency, President Obama’s brand is broken, according to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

“I think Barack Obama’s not real anymore to the American people,” Priebus said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” from the site of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. “At the top of the [Democratic] ticket is a man who sold us a bill of goods and delivered on very little.”

Voters, he added, are “starving for real authentic people that make a promise and keep a promise.”

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More difficult is convincing the all-important independents that Romney will make a better president than Obama. There is little the Democrats can do about the president’s weak job approval with this bloc. After all, independents have had three and a half years to observe the president and formulate an opinion. Instead, the left has taken to demagoguing Mitt Romney in the hopes of scaring the middle of the country away from the Republican party. This strategy has its origins in LBJ’s vicious “frontlash” campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964; Johnson knew that he was bound to face a backlash over the Great Society and civil rights, so he sought effectively to disqualify Goldwater among middle-class moderates by casting the Arizona conservative as a threat to humanity.

This explains why Team Obama has dogged Romney so relentlessly on his tenure at Bain Capital. The hope is to define the GOP nominee as a heartless plutocrat who will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. This is, of course, an argument Democrats typically employ, going all the way back to 1896, but it forms the centerpiece of the Obama attack this cycle.

It is incumbent upon Romney to counter this—and not just by pointing out falsehoods and exaggerations in the Obama message. Instead, Romney will have to aggressively project a positive message over the next few months. That does not mean he has to distribute white papers to the mailboxes of all undecided voters. But he does have to combine a sunny optimism that America’s best days are ahead with enough specifics to leave the impression that he actually knows how to execute the turnaround the nation so desperately needs.

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American politics is more divided than it has been in generations — and the American electorate is starting to reflect those divisions, with 9 of 10 likely voters already certain which way their votes will go. The polls — that is, those polls that don’t offer up ridiculous Democrat-heavy samples — have been neck-and-neck, and stable, for the past several weeks. There simply are not that undecided many voters out there to convince, and they are difficult to reach. Romney’s best hope is that undecided voters tend to break for the challenger.

Otherwise, there is not much the Republican party can do this week that has not already been done. Adding Rep. Paul Ryan has encouraged and mobilized the conservative base. Focusing on Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment has given the campaign a coherent economic message. Getting ahead of the Todd Akin controversy has minimized the damage to the national ticket. What’s left is to get out the vote–and while that process begins in earnest at the Republican National Convention, the Romney/Ryan campaign must rely on preparations made beforehand. And whatever “bounce” emerges from the Republican convention may be matched or canceled out by the Democratic convention that follows during the week after Labor Day.

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Everyone knows “it’s the economy, stupid.” Except it’s not simply the economy. The economic situation hasn’t changed in Missouri during the past week, nor have the economic agendas of the two senatorial candidates. But it turns out the public cares about the character and intelligence of those presenting themselves for election. The public also cares about what those candidates say, and what they would do, about a lot of noneconomic issues. The public cares about our troops fighting in Afghanistan, and whether their sacrifices will be in vain or not. The public cares whether Iran gets nuclear weapons. The public cares about marriage and morals, and about freedom and opportunity. Voters are, especially in hard times, certainly concerned about their pocketbooks​—​but they’re also concerned about the lessons they draw from their prayer books and their social studies books.

Everyone knows that the American people can’t understand a debate about abstractions like the national debt, entitlements, Obamacare, and sound money. Except that 2010 was the biggest Republican victory in decades, and came as Tea Party-inspired GOP candidates focused on these issues even as most voters still blamed a Republican, George W. Bush, for the weak economy…

What if a campaign focused first and foremost on laying out a serious governing agenda, on making clear what’s at stake in the choice before us, and on explaining why its nominees should be entrusted with the responsibility to lead the nation?

Everyone knows that wouldn’t work. Everyone knows the American people are stupid. Except what if they’re not?

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Q. But, I mean, I can certainly see Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, saying the same thing—the American people voted, we’re back in power, too. They’re not going to change their position on taxes, on climate change, on immigration. So I mean, if you could—if I could just push a little further on that, how do you see that dynamic changing?

Obama: Well, look, there are some proposals that they put forward that we’re not going to compromise on because I believe it would be bad for the country and bad for middle-class families.

I don’t think it would be a good idea to pursue an approach that voucherizes Medicare and raises taxes on middle-class families to give wealthy individuals a tax break. So if that’s the mandate that Republicans receive, then there’s still going to be some serious arguments here in Washington.

But what I’m offering the American people is a balanced approach that the majority agrees with, including a lot of Republicans. And for me to be able to say to the Republicans, the election is over; you no longer need to be focused on trying to beat me; what you need to be focused on and what you should have been focused on from the start is how do we advance the American economy — I’m prepared to make a whole range of compromises, some of which I get criticized from the Democratic Party on, in order to make progress. But we’re going to need compromise on your side as well. And the days of viewing compromise as a dirty word need to be over because the American people are tired of it.

That’s, I think, a message that will resonate not with every Republican, but I think with a lot of fair-minded Republican legislators who probably feel somewhat discouraged about having served in one of the least productive Congresses in American history.

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