The Obama campaign's early attempts to attack Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital or present him as too extreme to be president have not worked out all that well so far. The early stumbles have created a flurry of commentaries wondering what's wrong with the team that performed so flawlessly in Election 2008.
The answer may have nothing to do with the Obama campaign and have everything to do with the fact that Romney appears to be a tougher target than anticipated.
On the Bain Capital front, 44 percent of voters say Romney's business experience there is primarily a reason to vote for him, and only 33 percent see it as a negative. More importantly, though, a solid majority of voters believes that venture capital firms are better at job creation than new government programs.
That creates a major challenge for the Obama team: How can they go after Romney as a venture capitalist without appearing to attack the free market system that Americans wholeheartedly embrace?
Adding to the challenge for the president is that attacking venture capital firms reinforces a perception that he is already too far to the left on economic issues.
Most voters think cutting government spending will be good for the economy but feel the president wants more spending instead. Seventy percent of voters believe the president is politically liberal. That figure includes 46 percent who say he is very liberal. That's not where you want to be perceived in a center-right nation.
Overall, 43 percent of voters consider themselves conservative and just 26 percent liberal. Mostly, though, voters are pragmatic rather than ideological, and there is a distrust of those who are seen as strongly ideological. Only a modest number of voters describe themselves as either very conservative or very liberal, leaving more than seven out of 10 voters closer to the center.
That's where they perceive Romney to be. Fifty-six percent of voters see Romney as either politically moderate or somewhat conservative.
This creates another major challenge for the Obama team: How can they paint Romney as ideologically extreme when voters see the president as the more ideological candidate?
Obviously, all of these perceptions could shift over the course of the campaign. The president will try to convince voters he is a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. His team will try to paint Romney as out-of-touch with the concerns of day-to-day voters and to portray his business career as insensitive and predatory. Political junkies will continue to obsess over tactical decisions made by the campaign.
But the underlying reality is that Team Obama has a difficult hand to play. The economy matters more than campaign tactics, and the indicators at the moment are mixed at best. Additionally, most Americans believe that the president's instincts lead in the wrong direction when it comes to finding solutions.