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Obama, Romney Face Uphill Fights As General Election Starts For Real


The Republican primaries were certainly fun while they lasted, especially for political journalists and junkies for whom the intramural fighting generated no shortage of interesting and sometimes bizarre story lines.

But President Obama's campaign aides were all but certain from the start that they would be running against Mitt Romney. That was one of the few areas of agreement between the former Massachusetts governor's campaign and the Obama people.

With Republicans consolidating their support behind Romney in Tuesday's primaries and Newt Gingrich acknowledging Wednesday that further resistance to Romney is futile, there's no longer doubt that the general election campaign has begun.

And it begins with both Obama and Romney facing uphill battles.

For Obama, the greatest challenge remains the uncertain state of the economy. A still relatively high unemployment rate and other economic indicators have left him vulnerable.

Gallup reported this week that his approval rating has again reached 50 percent, a level it hit just weeks ago, before sliding a bit. A string of bad economic news could cause it to fall again.

But Obama faces the challenge of reconnecting with many of the voters whose imaginations he captured in 2008.

Meanwhile, Romney's challenge is the way a tough primary fight forced him to describe himself as a "severe conservative" and to move right ideologically to placate his party's base. Now, he'll need to moderate his positions to appeal to the general electorate.

What's more, for many voters, Romney isn't exactly the most charismatic candidate.

"Romney has a personal and an ideological roadblock to overcome; Obama has an economic roadblock," says Dan Schnur, a former John McCain aide who's now director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "Whichever one gets over the roadblock better gets to be president."

While both the president and Romney have steep hills to climb, however, Romney is going up against the arc of recent American history. Schnur says:

"My favorite factoid on presidential politics? Over the last half a century, every American president who has faced a primary challenge has not been re-elected. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992. Except for Johnson they all won their nominations, but they all went on to lose the general election campaign. On the flip side, every American president for half a century who has avoided a significant primary challenge has been re-elected. Nixon in '72, Reagan in '84, Clinton in '96, George W. Bush in 2004. So it's not a coincidence. When you face primary challenge you spend a lot more time tending to your party base. If you avoid the challenge, you can begin to move to the center a lot earlier."

Romney's need to fight for the heart and soul of his party's base meant that he took positions on immigration and reproductive rights, for instance, that didn't sit well with members of key segments of the electorate — women, young people and Latinos.

Thus, Romney probably will need to spend much of the next six months-plus trying to define himself for enough of these voters as someone they could trust in the White House.

Obama has his own difficulties.

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who also was a Clinton White House policy adviser, says political science research uniformly suggests that "when there's an election involving an incumbent, the incumbent's record take center stage."

In this case, Galston, says, the record is decidedly mixed. Voters approve of the auto bailout and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms but disapprove in large numbers of the health-care law, Obama's signature legislative victory.

And then there's the economy. Voters credit Obama with keeping it from going over the cliff but are impatient with its continued difficulties. Many voters, Galston says, still believe the economy is in recession.

"Obama would love to be able to run his version of Reagan's 'Morning in America' campaign, would love to be able to say 'It's been a long dark night, but the sun has now risen on a new day. We're moving in the right direction. Why would we turn back?'

"I know that campaign well because I was Walter Mondale's issues director. I remember it as though it were yesterday. And there was no answer to that. Well, the president right now is not in a position to run such a campaign. But he could conceivably be if things break his way.

"Unfortunately, it doesn't look to me as though things are breaking his way...."

Instead, Galston points to renewed uncertainties in the Euro zone and slowdowns in some fast-growing economies such as China and Brazil, all of which threaten to slow U.S. exports which had been giving the American economy some much-needed buoyancy. Galston adds:

"The economic outlook for the president is dicey. The outlook for the election is similarly so."

In a recent New Republic piece, Galston also explained why Obama will have problems replicating much of the excitement of four years ago.

The challenges facing Obama and Romney help explain why both campaigns and their superPAC allies will be relying on massive advertising blitzes in coming months to try to knock the opponent's approval numbers down significantly before Nov. 6.

Reports are that Romney and the Republican National Committee have a fundraising goal of $800 million. For its part, the Obama campaign and its allies intend to raise the better part of a $1 billion themselves, even though campaign aides have often denied that number.

Much of the money on both sides will go to negative ads aimed at making the other side's candidate unacceptable to as many voters as possible while energizing the base. As Schnur says:

"Both Romney and Obama are going to have difficulty motivating their respective bases this fall. Well, if you can't motivate your base by saying things that get them excited about you, tell them things that get them excited about your opponent."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.