The Obama-Romney rumble will last roughly as long as the baseball season, and, just as in baseball, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. So let’s score the opening week of the general election, with a thumbnail look at their strengths and weaknesses.

I don’t presume to know who will win, but Rich Galen, the Republican commentator and strategist, probably got it right the other day when he said he’d “probably bet the president,” if only by a hair. These categories tell that potential tale.


• The fairness issue. President Obama found his mojo last fall when he morphed into a populist and took aim at an unfair economic system that comforts the rich at the expense of the average Joe. He has the wind at his back; in a new national poll, 52 percent say that a system favoring the rich is a bigger problem than “overregulation of the free market,” while only 37 percent say the reverse. Another recent poll says that 61 percent want to “reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans.” Plus, Obama gets to aim this theme at an opponent who got rich on investment income, which is taxed at a far lower rate than the average Joe’s wage income.

• National security. Only one incumbent Democrat has lost a re-election race since 1888. That was Jimmy Carter, in part because of the Iranian hostage crisis and the burned shell of a rescue helicopter in the desert. Obama has no such baggage. By repeatedly whacking top terrorists, he has kept America safe. So far, anyway.

• Likability. Don’t kid yourself, this is always important. In 2000, Al Gore was the guy people didn’t want to have a beer with. (His beleaguered staff made up gag buttons that said, “I’m Al Gore, and I don’t like you either.”) By contrast, in a national poll last week, Obama was deemed “more friendly and likable” than Romney by a whopping 38 percentage points.


• Anti-Obama fervor. Those who hate the president have been jonesing to toss him out since day one. When the chips are down in late October, Romney may look a lot better to a lot of the voters who currently diss him as a whirling weather vane. Romney himself seems as passionate as a corporate quarterly report, but conservative passions could buoy him at the finish line.

• The economy. Yes, the numbers have been slowly and steadily on the uptick for many months, but most people aren’t feeling it. According to a new national poll, 76 percent of Americans believe we’re “still in recession.” In a campaign environment, perceptions matter more than stats. That gives Romney something to work with. On most issues, Romney trails Obama in the polls — with one notable exception: handling the economy.



• The economy. Did I mention the economy yet? It doesn’t mean squat that the economists decreed the recession over in June 2009. If you were to tell the average voter, “Hey, it’s been almost three years since we suffered a decline in the gross domestic product in two successive quarters,” the voter might simply say, “Yeah, well, my kid the college grad is driving me nuts living in my basement, because he still can’t find a job.” Obama has the burden of surmounting that mood.

• White men. He continues to fare very badly with Caucasians of his own gender, regardless of their education level. In the polls, Romney is beating him among college-educated white guys by 13 percentage points, and among noncollege white guys by 29 points.

• Hope-and-change deflation. The slogans of ’08 won’t work this time. Now he has a record to defend, plus the challenge of restoking enthusiasm among those who gave him a comfortable victory margin last time — namely, the young first-time voters who can’t find work and the minority voters whom he’ll need to offset his deficits among whites. (These zero-sum racial calculations are regrettable, but nonetheless real.)


Good grief, where to begin?

• A lousy candidate. Republicans openly say so. Here’s Galen, whom I hosted at the University of Pennsylvania: “The Romney we see now — this is as good as Romney is ever going to get. He’s not going to give a speech and have people quaking in the aisles or speaking in tongues.” And when he riffs off-script, he says stuff like, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” and “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs,” thereby burnishing his profile as a one percenter in a time of economic stress. Not to mention his politically ill-timed decision to double the size of his California beach mansion, complete with an elevator for his cars.

• The curse of Santorum, Part 1. Romney is finally free of Rick Santorum, but the pesky upstart did a lot of damage. He incessantly warned conservatives that Romney was a closet moderate who can’t be trusted to trumpet the issues that conservatives hold dear. Result? Romney may be saddled with a serious passion deficit on the Republican right.

• The curse of Santorum, Part 2. Thanks to Santorum’s theocratic riffs on women and contraception, and his general success in pulling Romney ever rightward, Romney may now be saddled with serious deficits among swing-voting independents generally — and among Hispanics and women, in particular. Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, are potentially pivotal in swing states like Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, but Romney trails Obama among Hispanics by 56 points.

As for women, Romney has hemorrhaged support since mid-February — pandering to the right, he has vowed, among other things, to “get rid of” federal money for Planned Parenthood — but, hey, women are only 53 percent of the electorate.

All told, Obama has the good fortune of facing a beatable opponent whose weaknesses were ripped open by an even weaker Republican field.

The race will likely be tight, but the president, in the end, may well confirm what they always say in the business world, that luck is a key ingredient of success.

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.