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Romney, Obama need money, message and polished images

| Sunday, April 15, 2012

Behind closed doors with their advisers this weekend, President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney likely engaged in similar conversations.

Both camps, experts say, soon will test image, message and money-raising -- three things essential to the seven months of campaigning that remain before the Nov. 6 election.

The two men turned the focus of their campaigns on each other last week, though it became clear months ago that Romney had a clear shot to become the party's nominee.

"Both camps have been nipping at each other for a very long time," said John Lapp, a Washington-based Democratic strategist.

The National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis on Friday provided the campaigns an opportunity to show that the gloves have come off. A crowd of about 6,000 welcomed Romney warmly, and the former Massachusetts governor tried to woo conservatives by warning that Obama would use a second term to reshape the Supreme Court to soften gun rights, among other things.

"In a second term, he would be unrestrained by the demands of re-election," said Romney, who promised to stand up for the rights of gun owners.

Obama's re-election campaign issued a statement in anticipation of Romney's speech: "The president's record makes clear that he supports and respects the Second Amendment, and we'll fight back against any attempts to mislead voters."

Those hits, and the handling earlier in the week of a Democratic consultant's attack on Ann Romney as a stay-at-home mother who knows nothing about economics, enabled both sides to show "they were seasoned, top-flight campaigns with excellent timing and ready to do battle," Lapp said.

Much remains to be done.

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, foresees five things that could affect the campaigns between now and November: a Supreme Court decision on Obama's health care law, which is expected in June; Romney's vice presidential choice in July; the party conventions in August and September; debates in October; and the price of gasoline this fall.

"Both campaigns will attempt to use the perceived strength of the other as political weakness," Paleologos said.

"President Obama's strategy will be to use Romney's personal wealth and success as a depiction of Mitt Romney being disconnected and out of touch with average folks. And Romney's strategy will be to use Obama's words from the 2008 campaign as false prophecy against the economic statistics of unemployment, housing and gas prices."

In a world in which Twitter, Facebook and other sources make for a 24-hour news cycle, this will become an "all-consuming, electronic campaign that impacts image, money and message," Lapp predicted.

Paleologos said those things probably came into play as the candidates talked with their strategists this weekend about how to move forward.

"Right now they are focusing on raising money, solidifying their voting bases and creating three tiers of electoral voting models with the six to eight states that will decide the election," he said.

Romney, in particular, needs to rebuild his image after a bruising campaign fight with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Paleologos said. In Suffolk's May 2011 national poll, Romney received a 39 percent "favorable" rating and 32 percent "unfavorable." In March, 38 percent of those polled still gave him a favorable rating, but his unfavorable number had risen to 44 percent, Paleologos said.

"He needs to track back to the middle and regain moderates and independents," he said.

Romney also needs to glue together a fragmented GOP, said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.

Schmidt thinks the president has repair work to do as well.

"Obama needs to rebuild confidence among progressives in his party, a group that is boiling mad at him for veering so sharply to the right in his first three years," he said.

Both men will spend considerable time raising money, though neither campaign will acknowledge fundraising goals.

In 2008, Obama broke a campaign pledge to use only public financing and instead raised $750 million, outspending Republican nominee John McCain nearly 3-to-1. In this campaign, Obama has held more than 100 big-dollar fundraisers and jointly raised money with the Democratic National Committee.

Romney has begun setting up the same structure with the Republican National Committee and is said to be planning his solo fundraising calendar.

"It is all about the money," Paleologos said.

The role of money changed with the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision involving Citizens United, which wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary campaign, Lapp said. The court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by unions and corporations.

The case ultimately made it possible for donors to keep their identities secret and contribute unlimited amounts through political action committees known as superPACs.

SuperPACs, placing ads to attack or support candidates, have demonstrated their impact in Republican primary contests and presumably will continue to do so. Though they do not coordinate with official campaigns, the Restore Our Future SuperPAC supports Romney; the Priorities USA Action supports Obama.

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