By Susan Page, USA TODAY
The good news for Republican challenger Mitt Romney: After three rocky weeks, he remains within striking distance of President Obama in the battleground states that matter most. The bad news: His latest misstep could upend that.
A new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Swing States, completed Monday night, shows Romney lagging President Obama by only 2 percentage points, 48%-46%, well within the survey's margin of error and a point closer than their contest last month. Nationwide, Obama's bounce from the Democratic National Convention is dissipating: The president now leads across the country in the Gallup Poll by a single point, 47%-46%.
But the story transfixing cable newscasts and the Twitterverse on Tuesday wasn't Romney's recovery but his comments, captured in a secretly recorded video of a Florida fundraiser in May and posted online Monday by Mother Jones magazine. Before a wealthy audience, he dismissed (coincidentally) 47% of the electorate as people who don't pay income taxes, lack personal responsibility, are dependent on the government and are firmly behind his opponent.
The survey also finds more voters open to changing their minds than the conventional wisdom holds - and a surge in enthusiasm by Democrats.
So with seven weeks to go until Election Day, has Romney succeeded in bending the trajectory of a contest that seemed to be headed Obama's way? Or will this latest controversy distract his campaign and drive away remaining persuadable voters?
"Every one of these little nicks obviously knocks you off your game and takes you off your overall strategy, but it's still a very competitive race," says veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins. "The more important issue is to get this thing focused and don't get distracted by it. When people start second-guessing and doubting whether you can win, sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Romney, who was raising money in Utah on Tuesday, didn't back away from his remarks, saying he was drawing a contrast with Obama on his faith in free enterprise.
"Efforts that promote hard work and personal responsibility over government dependency make America strong," Romney said in an op-ed published in today's USA TODAY. "However, over the past four years, those kinds of opportunities have been in short supply. We're experiencing the worst recovery since the Great Depression. Unemployment has been above 8% for 43 straight months; 47 million Americans are on food stamps. Nearly one in six Americans now live in poverty.
"Under President Obama, we have a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency. My policies will create a growing economy that fosters upward mobility."
Still, other Republicans acknowledged that Romney's remarks risked significant damage in the home stretch of the campaign. In Connecticut, GOP Senate candidate Linda McMahon issued a statement distancing herself from her party's standard-bearer. "I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation" about those who accept government help, she said. On his blog for the conservative Weekly Standard, editor Bill Kristol labeled Romney's comments "arrogant and stupid."
And Democrats pounced on the comments as evidence confirming their harshest caricature of Romney: as a plutocrat who doesn't know much or care much about the lives and travails of ordinary Americans. They noted that many of those who don't pay income taxes are the elderly - Romney's strongest age group, by the way - or very poor.
"In my experience, remarks that are consistent with pre-existing beliefs or even suspicions about a candidate do tend to have credibility," says Bill Galston, a Democratic analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It will tend to strengthen pre-existing impressions that he was out of touch and perhaps a bit indifferent, however much he might try to claim that his care for the American people is comprehensive and includes everybody."
Tuesday night on The Late Show With David Letterman, Obama disputed Romney's characterization of those who seek government help. "There are not a lot of people out there who think they're victims; there are not a lot of people who think they're entitled to something," the president said, but he added, "We've got some obligations to each other, and there's nothing wrong with us giving each other a helping hand."
Who's left to persuade?
Of the nine Swing States polls taken since October, in only one has either candidate scored an advantage outside the margin of error - that was Obama, in March. In seven of nine the candidates have traded a lead within 2 percentage points of one another. The survey is in the 12 states likely to decide the Electoral College: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The new poll of 1,096 registered voters Sept. 11-17 has a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points.
That history might leave the impression that the electorate is so firmly set in their choices that there is nobody open to persuasion, despite news developments on everything from the unemployment rate to Middle East violence, and in the face of an estimated half a trillion dollars spent so far on TV ads in the swing states.
But the new poll finds a surprising number of voters not yet firmly aligned with one side or the other. More than one in five registered voters say they don't know who they are going to vote for or that there is at least the possibility they will change their minds. Romney supporters are slightly more set in their choice: 21% of Obama's supporters and 14% of Romney's supporters say there is "some" or a "slight" chance they will switch their vote.
Who are those persuadables?
Four in 10 are independents, with about equal numbers leaning Democratic and Republican, and a third are moderates. Almost a third are younger than 35. More than nine in 10 say they weren't swayed by the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Besides deciding who to vote for, however, they also will have to decide whether to vote. This group is far less enthusiastic than those who are certain about which candidate they'll support. A third of them say they are "not at all" enthusiastic - which may mean they won't be counted when the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll moves to include only likely voters next month.
There is one front on which the Democrats have scored clear and perhaps crucial gains. The "enthusiasm gap" that favored Republicans by 11 points a year ago suddenly has moved to a 9-point advantage for Democrats - a crucial asset when it comes to turning out supporters to the polls.
The percentage of Democrats who say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting has surged from 53% last month to 73% now. Republican enthusiasm has risen but by not nearly as much, to 64% from 55%.
Those gains in enthusiasm might reflect the effectiveness of the conventions in boosting base supporters: 16% of Democrats but just 6% of Republicans said the political conventions had "a great deal" of impact on their vote.
"This race has been close and competitive for a year and a half, and we expect it to remain so," Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, says of the Swing States Poll. "We're going to spend every day making sure the economic choice is clear between a president who fights to restore economic security for the middle class or a governor who wants to return to the same policies that crashed the economy and devastated the middle class."
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse says the "sugar high" from the Democratic convention is gone. "This race is exactly where everyone thought it would be: a dead heat with just under 50 days to go," he says. "We're really looking forward to the next seven weeks outlining the differences between President Obama's failed record and Gov. Romney's vision for the country."
A case of the yips
What alarms some Republicans, including inside the Romney organization, is that the campaign seems to have gotten a case of the yips just as it heads into the home stretch.
A generally well-received convention speech by Romney was overshadowed by a peculiar performance on stage by actor Clint Eastwood, including a combative conversation with an invisible Obama sitting in an empty chair. Obama got a significant bounce and a 7-point national lead after his convention. As the White House was forced to deal with an unfolding crisis in Egypt and Libya last week, it was Romney who was on the defensive for trying to preemptively blast the administration.
On Monday morning, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said the campaign was going to move on to offer more specifics about the candidate's prescriptions to help the middle class. But by Monday evening, it was dealing with another stumble, on the video.
On Tuesday, more quotes from the fundraiser, including on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were forcing the campaign to explain and defend his remarks. Romney had said Palestinians have "no interest whatsoever" in reaching an accord with Israel and said "the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."
"The focus for the campaign is getting back to talking about Mitt Romney's plan for helping the middle class and prosecuting the case against Barack Obama and why his policies have failed the country - to get back into a good rhythm heading to the debates," Romney spokesman Brian Jones said.
Both campaigns call the debates, which start in Denver on Oct. 3, as critical in what continues to be a close contest. One in four registered voters in the swing states predict the debates will have a great deal or fair amount of effect on their vote for president. That number is even higher among the remaining "persuadables": 37% say the debates will matter to how they vote.
"It's his opening and also it may be his last chance to change the trajectory of the race as much as it needs to be changed," Galston says of Romney. "He has a lot riding on the first debate."