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First Thoughts: It's not an even race - Obama's ahead

Things have changed. It’s not an even race right now -- Obama’s ahead … Does Romney go bolder in his veep pick because of it? … Speaking of bolder, was he hinting at picking someone like Paul Ryan yesterday in his interview with NBC with talk of “vision” and adding to the “political discourse about the direction of the country?” … Romney’s pledge to stay away from personal attacks … The flap over the out-of-bounds Priorities ad carries risk for Obama’s image. … Obama campaign pushes back against the dubious Romney welfare ad with an ad … GOP conservative concern is growing … And more evidence Romney makes his VP pick AFTER the bus tour.

Jack Dempsey / AP

President Barack Obama talks to supporters during a campaign rally at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, Aug, 9, 2012.

*** It’s not an even race – Obama’s ahead: The Olympics are wrapping up and, at the end of July, when the Olympics began, we wrote that we were basically at halftime of the general election -- and Obama had a narrow lead. Well, it’s a little bigger than that now. (People may want to quibble, but you can’t dismiss every poll on sampling.) There’s clearly movement toward the president and clearly problems for Romney personally. We had found it in our polling for the last month and it hadn’t shown up everywhere yet. Now it has. The latest evidence: three new polls out today – from CNN, Fox, and Reuters/Ipsos – all showing President Obama leading Romney by seven points or more and at or near 50%. (CNN 52-45%, Fox 49-40%, Reuters/Ipsos 49-42%). What’s more, Romney continues to have an image problem. In CNN, Obama’s fav/unfav is +14, Romney’s -1. And in Fox, Obama’s +12, Romney’s +1. (Ipsos didn’t ask fav/unfav.) 

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd recaps Mitt Romney past six weeks and the candidate's fall in the polls.

*** Raising the stakes: What does this mean aside from how the playing field has shifted in the last two weeks? All this raises the stakes for Romney’s VP pick and convention. We’ve said August is important for Romney to make a move, and that’s even truer now. He enters what could be the final week of VP speculation. We’re in any-day mode with his running mate selection. And he’s at a point where the running-mate selection, which will change the subject from whatever’s being talked about, is going to be made when Romney’s behind, making it more defining than perhaps he ever wanted it to be. The conventional wisdom had been that Romney was going to be picking a running mate in a coin-flip race. Well that’s not the case now. How does that change his mind? Does it help Paul Ryan? Does Romney go outside the short list and go somewhere else (Rubio, Christie?). The bottom line is in just three weeks, he was going to be picking his running mate from a position of strength (and perhaps that favored a guy like Tim Pawlenty, meaning he could pick a partner and a friend). Now, he’s picking one from a position of weakness.

*** Romney hinting at Ryan? Mitt Romney, in his interview yesterday with one of us, said he wants someone with “a vision for the country that adds something to the political discourse about the direction of the country. I mean, I happen to believe this is a defining election for America that we're going to be voting for what kind of America we're going to have.” He added: “[T]his is a campaign of a big choice.” Well, who does that sound like? That probably brought a smile to the face of Paul Gigot. He would argue in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that no one represents a clearer “vision for the country” or “adds to the political discourse” more than Paul Ryan. How would Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty fit into that mold aside from simply being on Team Romney? Romney seemed to say: I do want to say something with my pick. I want to make a distinction. Of course, throughout the entire GOP presidential primary, candidates were saying this was the most important election of our lifetimes. And President Obama has certainly talked about the stark choice this election represents. But this was the strongest hint yet at Romney's thinking.

NBC's Domenico Montanaro highlights the latest poll numbers showing President Obama leading Mitt Romney, and the Obama campaign's newest television ad responding to Mitt Romney's welfare television ad.

*** This is business not personal: Romney also said in the interview he would like a pledge (of sorts) with Obama that there be no “personal” attack ads. “[O]ur campaign would be-- helped immensely if we had an agreement between both campaigns that we were only going to talk about issues and that attacks based upon-- business or family or taxes or things of that nature.” (Question: Is Romney really saying that scrutinizing his business record -- which he has held up as one of his chief qualifications to be president -- is personal? But we digress...) He continued: “[W]e only talk about issues. And we can talk about the differences between our positions and our opponent's position.” Romney said of his own campaign: “[O]ur ads haven't gone after the president personally. … [W]e haven't dredged up the old stuff that people talked about last time around. We haven't gone after the personal things.” That doesn’t mean surrogates or Super PACs have, as was brought up to him. Bottom line, obviously, this negative stuff is getting to Romney or he wouldn’t have said this. Campaigns that are winning never complain about the tone of the campaign (although Obama certainly laments “crazy” things outside groups say – more on that below.). There will be more on this from Romney on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown. Did he just offer the Obama campaign an official pledge? See for yourself.

*** Reset your Priorities: Speaking of “crazy” things outside groups come up with. The Romney campaign and RNC have done a good job pushing and highlighting the Priorities ad, which goes too far. The Chicago Tribune today says Obama should denounce the ad: “Mr. President, lift the campaign. Call this ad what it is: a disgrace.” This ad clearly highlights the continued blurring of the lines between campaigns and the outside groups that support them. And the Obama campaign gave the Romney folks and RNC an opening when it denied knowing the man’s story in the ad (they shifted on that yesterday a bit.) The man had appeared in an Obama campaign ad previously and was on a campaign conference call touting his story – all dug up and pushed by Romney/RNC. (Although there’s no proof that the Obama campaign explicitly coordinated and told Priorities to run this ad.) If the shoe was on the other foot, you’d expect the Obama people would ask for Romney to denounce it. Why’s the GOP pushing this story so hard? Because one of Obama’s great strengths is that he’s perceived by the public not as a generic, cynical politician, and if some of that luster can rub off, it helps Romney. Obama has a positive “brand,” and he still has more to lose if this becomes a total mud fest than Romney if he’s not careful.

*** Pushback: By the way, it’s worth noting that the Priorities ad still hasn’t actually aired anywhere (except in free cable chatter.) The Romney welfare ad, on the other hand, IS running – and it’s why the Obama campaign is responding in kind with an ad of its own – this one called “Blatant,” which notes the fact checks calling the ad “blatantly false” and misleading. There are two ways campaigns respond to negative attacks – (1) via press release if the ad’s not actually airing (which is what the Romney camp and RNC are doing), and (2) Go on air with an ad in defense (which is what Obama’s doing). By the way, with Romney yesterday saying on Bill Bennett’s radio show that there was a time when campaigns used to feel guilted into pulling ads deemed to be false, does that mean he’ll be pulling the welfare ad?

*** GOP conservative concern is growing: Yesterday, we noted how conservative activists reacted to a comment from a Romney spokesperson on health care. Well, they’re also voicing complaints – in blind quotes -- about Romney’s transition team, reports The Washington Post’s Rubin. They’re upset with the addition of former World Bank president and U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Zoellick to the transition team to deal with national security. They accuse Zoellick of promoting “multilateral mush.” Later in the day, on a separate point, John Podhoretz tweeted: “So every day Romney is not talking about the economy is a day lost, campaign says. Are they talking about the economy? No. Thus, the problem.” Rubin wrote that this week “was a lesson that the campaign dare not be oblivious to deep-seated grievances and sensitivities from conservative foot soldiers.” It’s another example of the base’s wariness of Romney and the gap of trust that exists. This is a problem for Romney. How will Romney lead his party if they don’t trust him? His base just isn't allowing him much room – and by comparison, Obama was able to tack to the middle on free trade and even Iraq a bit during the 2008 general. By the way, doesn’t this problem make Ryan one of the “safer” picks for Romney?
*** What’s the frequency, Kenneth? Podhoretz hits on this point -- that the Romney campaign message isn’t quite coming in crystal clear. It was SUPPOSED to be hyper-focused on the economy, remember? But he got hit hard for his tax plan that left a lot of specifics out. He also lamented overseas that he wasn’t being asked about “substance.” So what has the Team Romney message been this past week? Welfare, Israel, negative Super PAC ads and Lech Walesa and the Pope. They've been all over the place. Either they are trying to throw the kitchen sink at Obama -- now. Or they realize they have to do more than just the economy. Or they are trying to hold the ball out to drive daily news cycles until the veep is picked and the convention, which will take the narrative away from Bain or taxes or anything else negative about Romney (like this Bloomberg story about Romney’s time as the head of Marriott’s audit committee, in which “during Romney’s tenure as a Marriott director, the company repeatedly utilized complex tax-avoidance maneuvers….”). Or a combination of all those. It may be the biggest development of the past week.

*** More evidence pick happens end of next week: The Newark Star Ledger has this little nugget in today’s paper: “Although most attention was focused on the possible vice presidential nominee, one person close to the situation said the selection of Christie as the keynote speaker could come from the Romney camp as early as this weekend.” So, one of the little surprises on this bus tour (that already includes appearances with veep hopefuls Bob McDonnell, Marco Rubio, and Rob Portman) that the Romney campaign might have some fun with is that Chris Christie could be unveiled as the RNC keynoter. This is shaping up to be the biggest tease bus trip since Sarah Palin went on her national parks summer vacation. It’s all the more reason to think the pick will likely happen at the end of next week. This is all playing out exactly how the Romney campaign would want – milking the speculation and buzz nationally and locally.

*** On the trail: President Obama hosts a Ramadan dinner at the White House at 8:30 pm ET.

Countdown to GOP convention: 17 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 24 days
Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 54 days
Countdown to VP debate: 62 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 67 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 73 days
Countdown to Election Day: 88 days

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