Salena Zito

He further opened himself to attack by abandoning his principles of "hope and change" for class-based attacks, promises of taxpayer-funded handouts to cronies and opportunistic appeals to progressive social values.

Presidential elections are about incumbents and whether voters are willing to fire them. Once they reach that conclusion, they explore the alternatives.

History dictates that incumbents win, said Dane Strother, a Washington-based strategist for Democrats.

"All elections are about the incumbent and the future," he said, adding that this time, the choice is about who can best fix the economy.

Right now, voters haven't decided to fire Obama -- but they are wavering.

Obama needs to articulate that the country will be in better shape four years from now under him, not under Republican Mitt Romney.

Republican strategist Bruce Haynes is not sure the president can deliver that message: "(His) campaign seems stuck ... unable to take this race to a different place than the race they ran in 2008. That's dangerous. Hope is a hopelessly aspirational thing for people struggling to buy groceries and gas, and he's now on the wrong side of the people who want to see change."

Romney will not beat Obama by presenting detailed policies that can be picked apart before the election. He will win by disqualifying the incumbent and presenting popular principles that would guide his administration.

There may be no better theme for Romney than his message that "America is exceptional," to extol its virtues rather rather than revel in its defects, to cherish our belief in liberty, equality, constitutionalism -- and the well-being of folks like Smokey.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.