Michael Gerson

His weaknesses: Romney has been consistently unable to manufacture excitement -- the most important commodity produced by a presidential campaign. Romney himself can come across as formal and slightly plastic, particularly when compared to Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. (Given the fact that Barack Obama is also fuzziness-challenged, this comparison is more of a draw.) Romney has the aura of a 1950s TV father figure -- upright, earnest, kindly, a little out of touch. This is not inauthentic -- actually, it is admirable -- but it is distant from our current cultural norms. Obama will pound on Romney's personal wealth and the rate at which he has paid taxes. Romney's greatest vulnerability on this issue may be his own tin ear, displayed in his brush-off of the poorest. And Romney has earned a reputation for ideological variability -- the unavoidable consequence of winning the governorship of a very liberal state before winning the nomination of a very conservative party. Any confirmation of this reputation would be damaging.

So how does the Romney-Obama contest stack up? Obama is a skilled but significantly weakened political figure. The facts of economic stagnation testify against him. He has been forced off the pedestal of great, unifying ideals and now pursues a base-oriented strategy of tax increases and complaints about economic unfairness. Unlike the broad alliance of aspiration he assembled in 2008, Obama is rounding up the old Al Gore and John Kerry political coalition. Romney does not possess George W. Bush's more potent appeal to conservatives, which was both religious and anti-elitist. But Romney has an easier case to make than Bush had in either of his elections. In 2000, Bush ran against a humming Clinton economy. In 2004, he was weighed down by Iraq. Romney has neither of these obstacles to overcome.

In this campaign, both candidates are generally viewed as skilled and qualified. Barring conflict with Iran or the collapse of the euro, the outcome of the election will be greatly influenced by the perception of economic conditions on Election Day -- a bit of conventional wisdom that is conventional for good reason.

But this remains an evenly divided country on the presidential level, which means that political inevitability can be confounded by the smallest things: a serious gaffe, a stirring convention speech, a strong ground game in Ohio or Florida, or even the votes of the very poor.   

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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