Mitt Romney is trying to win the election by using Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign strategy.

During that campaign, James Carville, a Clinton strategist, posted a sign in the campaign headquarters to keep workers on message. It read: “The economy, stupid.”

In either campaign headquarters, this year the sign could read: “The candidate, stupid.”

The campaign is boiling down to a choice based on the character of the two candidates.

Romney prefers to keep voters focused on the economy, still struggling to recover from the deep recession now more than four years old. If the Republican candidate can convince voters that they are worse off than they were when Barack Obama was elected, he expects to win.

By focusing on the economy, the Republicans believe that Obama will be kept on the defensive, giving them the best chance of defeating an incumbent president.

Polling shows that the only major issue on which Romney is viewed more positively than Obama is on being able to deal with the economy.

Clearly, Obama would like the attention to be placed elsewhere. He stresses that he inherited the recession from President George W. Bush, and most voters seem to agree. But, with slow improvement under Obama, voters may not be swayed by this fact.

If the economy and jobs are the top issues and Romney is favored on them, Obama has to try to change the focus.

The Obama campaign’s principal arguments are about Romney himself and deal with such matters as his wealth, his failure to reveal more than a couple of tax returns and his shifting positions on health care and other key policies.

Both campaigns have departed from the truth in their claims about the other, but the Republicans bear heavier responsibility for keeping the fact checkers busy. Obama is certain to try to get voters to believe that the Romney-Ryan ticket has trouble telling the truth.

Repub-licans seek to make Obama appear foreign, claiming his health care policy reeks of European socialism.

The Republican National Convention tried to make Romney more likable, because polls suggest he is less personally popular than Obama.

In the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, some 48 percent thought positively of Obama, with 43 percent holding a negative view. Romney’s positive rating of 38 percent was exceeded by his negative 44 percent result.

These differences may seem small, but changes in these numbers could determine the outcome of the election. That’s especially true, because the election will be decided by the results in only a few states, where the candidates are running nearly even.

Deciding who should be president based on voters’ views of candidate’s personalities and character more than their position on issues makes sense. The public is now well aware that a politician’s promises are not reliable, and his or her character is a better forecaster of performance in office.

In a campaign that readily could become reckless, loaded with wild charges and mistruths, the presidential debates could be more important than ever.

Obama and Romney will have to worry about the accuracy of their claims and charges during the debates, when they each can be challenged on the spot by questioners. How the two conduct themselves could be far more important than what they say.

If the top of the ticket produces a relatively even result, the vice presidential debate could be more critical. GOP Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden are closer in popularity than Obama and Romney.

Biden tends to talk more than he should, and Ryan tends to depart from the facts more than he should, so their debate could be a corker.

Does the focus on personality and character mean that the economy will fade as an issue?

Not likely, but it may fit together with the more personal factors.

Obama wants to trim some government spending and raise taxes on the most wealthy, as he tries to cut the deficit while nudging the economy back to health. The problem with Obama is that his plan does not lead to eliminating the deficit, just getting closer to doing it.

Romney wants to cut spending deeply and possibly cut taxes for the wealthy, believing that the economy could then cure itself. The problem with Romney is that he does not reveal how the government can continue to carry out the functions that people expect of it after the cuts are made.

If voters get to understand the way the candidates think about the economy, they may learn more about how they would govern than about their policies once in office.

In the end, many of us vote for or against the candidate, not the policy.

— Gordon L. Weil is an author, publisher, consultant, and former official of international organizations and the U.S. and Maine governments.



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