US election digest: Obama fights back after debate mauling, latest jobs stats and more

Larry Smith's latest round-up of the US Presidential election campaign.


US Campaign Briefing 05/10/12

Denver Presidential Debate

Obama hits back at Romney following debate loss

President Obama has urged Mitt Romney to be more honest about his policy agenda after coming up short against the Republican nominee during their first televised encounter on Wednesday night. Speaking at a rally in Denver, where he and Romney had met less than 24 hours earlier, the President conceded his rival had proved “very spirited” but blasted him for having “danced around his positions” throughout their 90-minute joust.

During the course of the showdown, Romney had taken the fight to Obama on America’s sluggish economy while aggressively wooing middle-class voters. Seizing on a gaffe made earlier in the week by Vice President Biden, the former governor said middle-income voters had been “buried” by Obama’s policies. He went on to recount the ordinary people he had met on the campaign trail, pledging a different kind of help for those struggling through the economic downturn.

There were also frequent references to his record in Massachusetts, where Romney said Republicans and Democrats had “come together” to pass his comprehensive reform of healthcare.

Obama for his part failed to land many effective blows on his rival, declining to knock Romney’s time in private equity or his gaffe about Americans who do not pay income tax – something for which the former governor later apologised. The President further struggled to rebut charges he had cut Medicare, and omitted to mention Vice Presidential contender Paul Ryan planned similar cutbacks as part of his budget.

The former governor’s biggest moment of weakness may have come during a discussion about his tax plan: Romney denied he was proposing a tax cut that would add to the deficit but again refused to name the loopholes he would axe to pay for blanket reductions. This lack of clarity has already come back to haunt him, as have comments he made about his own Medicare agenda and the future of public service broadcasting.

A poll of uncommitted voters taken immediately after the debate found a large majority rating Romney the winner, with snap findings from Reuters suggesting the GOP candidate gained four points on President Obama following his stellar performance. The Democrat will now look to regroup in time for the next presidential debate on October 16th, although Vice President Biden has an opportunity to blunt the Republican ticket’s momentum when he faces off with Ryan next Thursday.

Press hails GOP nominee’s triumph

American political commentators have offered near-universal praise for Romney’s debate performance, with many agreeing the result offers the former governor a chance to upend the presidential contest. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza argued the Republican candidate demonstrated “hyper-competence” while offering snappy sound bites interspersed with humour.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball said Romney “ran away” with the encounter, adding it marked the re-emergence of a “moderate, pragmatic” leader unafraid to embrace his record in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias broadly agreed, saying Romney had finally shaken the “etch-a-sketch” and succeeded in portraying himself as less ideological than Republican leaders in Congress.

Others, including policy blogger Ezra Klein,sniffed Romney had succeeded by being “purposefully vague” but marvelled at the power of his “crisp, clear” responses.

There was an equally strong consensus about President Obama’s subpar outing. The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart criticised the Democrat for allowing his rival to pose as an “amiable grandpa” who would merely “tinker around the edges”; New York Magazine’s liberal columnist Jonathan Chait bemoaned his penchant for “wonky discursions” and Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson accused him of “political malpractice” for not mentioning Romney’s 47% gaffe.

Many observers agree Romney has earned himself a second look from the American people, although others point out only one of the past five incumbent Presidents has managed to win the opening debate.

Presidential RaceOther News

Job gains strengthen Obama on economy

New figures have shown the American economy adding 114,000 new jobs through September, as unemployment dipped significantly to 7.8%. Data released by the Bureau of Labour Statistics revealed the number of people in the labour force had risen by 418,000, with job totals for July and August revised upwards. The large drop in unemployment will be a particular boost for President Obama, who has seen the jobless rate hover above 8% for 43 months. It also deprives Romney of one of his more potent lines of attack going into the final weeks of campaigning.

Conservatives blast Prez over Wright video

Several right-wing commentators and websites have touted video of a “divisive” speech President Obama made in 2007, during which he praised his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright and condemned a lack of assistance provided to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The video, which was covered five years ago, includes clips of Obama describing Wright as a “great leader” and faulting the Bush administration for not considering people in New Orleans “part of the American family”.

The conservative Daily Caller, which was one of the outlets to publish the footage, accused Obama of making a “racially charged” address that undermined his image as someone who could bring different ethnic groups together. Fox News’s Sean Hannity made similar claims, alleging Obama had indulged in “class warfare”. The President’s campaign has dismissed the video as outdated and claimed “allies” of Mitt Romney were behind its re-release. Aides to the former governor denied any involvement in the tape’s publication.

New headaches for WH over Libya mission

President Obama’s administration is under fire again over the security of its consulate in Benghazi, amid reports sensitive documents about US operations in Libya were left unprotected in the wrecked compound. A Washington Post journalist visiting the site discovered materials relating to weapons collection efforts, emergency protocols and personnel records on the floor of the mission, which was attacked by militants nearly a month ago. Two private guards paid for by the site’s owner are the only security forces now watching over the burnt-out building, and the US State Department has admitted safeguarding the site is proving a “challenge”.

Republicans in Congress have continued to press administration officials for more information about the assault, with senior House members alleging Libyan private security personnel were warned to quit their posts following rumours of an attack. There have also been suggestions Obama officials relied on selective CIA talking points when they initially claimed the attack evolved from protests outside the consulate, and that the State Department denied a security request from the Libyan Embassy back in May.

Romney opted not to press Obama on the matter during Wednesday’s debate, but is thought likely to raise Libya during a set piece address on foreign policy next week.

Obama in big September cash haul

The President’s campaign has set a new monthly fundraising record for the 2012 cycle, raking in over $150m through September. This total was up from $114m in August.

Latinos hold dim views of GOP

Hispanic voters have extremely poor perceptions of the Republican Party according to a new poll released earlier this week. A survey by NBC, The Wall Street Journal and Telemundo found 52% of Latinos viewing the GOP in a negative light, compared with just 21% who have positive feelings. The poll also had President Obama beating Romney by 50%, a figure in line with numbers released by CNN on Tuesday.

The former governor has attempted to claw back ground by moving slightly to the centre on immigration, promising to honour deportation exemptions issued by the Obama administration. However, his campaign added he would not approve new temporary visas for young illegal immigrants, a move that would effectively halt the incumbent’s policy. Further coverage: [Orlando Sentinel].

PA voter law suspended

A lower court judge in Pennsylvania has ruled voter ID requirements passed by the state legislature cannot be used in the forthcoming general election, citing concerns authorities would not be able to provide citizens with the necessary documentation in time for polling day. The move has been condemned by proponents of tougher voting laws and broadly welcomed by civil rights groups, despite lingering fears poll workers in the Keystone State could still demand ID from people casting ballots. Further coverage: [Bloomberg].

Pre-debate polls: [Gallup]; [NBC/WSJ]; [CNN/ORC]; [Quinnipiac]; [National Journal]; [YouGov]; [NPR – battlegrounds]; [NBC/Marist/WSJ – FL, OH, VA]; [Suffolk – FL] [WAM – NV, MO]; [Survey USA – NC]; [Roanoke College – VA]; [Marquette University – WI].

Congressional and State Races

Akin faces fresh abortion claims

Abortion is once again top of the agenda in Missouri’s Senate race after it emerged GOP candidate Todd Akin once gave a speech blasting abortion providers as “terrorists” that sometimes performed the practice on women who were not pregnant. The Congressman – who subsequently stood by his words – made the remarks during a 2008 address to the House of Representatives, in which he accused abortion clinics of fostering a “culture of death”.

Akin has also been forced to explain his arrest at an anti-abortion demonstration around 20 years ago, and has refuted suggestions he used sexist language about Democratic rival Claire McCaskill during a televised debate with her last month. Some leading Republicans have swung behind Akin’s candidacy now the deadline for him to quit has passed, but Mitt Romney, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chair John Cornyn have all publicly refused to back him.

Recent polling has given McCaskill a small-to-middling advantage over Akin, with a Public Policy Polling survey released Wednesday showing Missouri voters deeply hostile to the Republican.

In another development, Akin has been upbraided for not disclosing a state employee pension in accordance with congressional rules.

MA hopefuls in fiery debate clash

The candidates running for Senate in Massachusetts engaged in a second televised debate on Monday, with Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren trading accusations in front of more than 5,000 spectators in the eastern city of Lowell. Both candidates made notable gaffes during the raucous encounter, the incumbent citing right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia as his favourite member of the Supreme Court and Warren pledging to work with a GOP Senator who is departing Congress this November.

Brown avoided going after Warren as aggressively as he had during their previous meeting, although he took a shot at her academic background and attempted to link the furore about her Native American ancestry to contentious debates over affirmative action.

The Democrat was maintaining a small lead over Brown going into the debate and has been boosted by the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton, who sent out a fundraising pitch noting a Warren win would help her party keep control of the Senate.

Carmona inches ahead in AZ

Democrat Richard Carmona has overtaken Republican Congressman Jeff Flake in the race to succeed retiring Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, according to new findings from Public Policy Polling. The survey, which showed Mitt Romney besting President Obama by 9% in the Grand Canyon State, had the former surgeon general defeating Flake by 2%.

The GOP contender had a 1% advantage in a poll conducted by the same firm three weeks ago. Carmona has also shown strength in the fundraising stakes, garnering $2.2m in donations through the third quarter of 2012. Further coverage: [National Journal]; [Roll Call].

Polls continue to break for Kaine in VA

Fresh surveys of Virginia’s Senate contest have found Democrat Tim Kaine opening up a clear lead over his Republican opponent George Allen, even as the former Senator’s allies hammer his record on taxes. Marist’s poll of the Old Dominion put Kaine 5% ahead, while findings from Roanoke College showed him 10% up and gaining strongly among minority voters.

The Democrat has meanwhile purchased $3m of airtime for the period leading up to election day, something that will allow him to counter ads from conservative groups which allege he slapped job-killing levies on businesses while Governor of Virginia. Further coverage: [WaPo].

Dems deny backing King bid

The head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has refuted reports her party is supporting Maine’s independent Senate frontrunner Angus King, despite its decision to purchase airtime in the state. Washington Senator Patty Murray told reporters the national Democratic party had “not endorsed” the former governor, who some local Democrats warn could still caucus with Republicans if he makes it to Capitol Hill.

King, who has gone on the offensive against GOP rival Charlie Summers in recent days, remains favourite to win the seat although there is conflicting evidence about the size of his poll lead.

Questions for Mandel over elevator incident

Ohio’s Republican Senate contender Josh Mandel has come under pressure after a reporter accompanying him on the campaign trail contradicted his account of an altercation he had with a Democratic staffer filming his movements. The State Treasurer had claimed tracker Tyler Hansen, who works for a Democratic political action committee, made “initial physical contact” during a minor scuffle the two had in an elevator last Friday. A reporter following Mandel on the campaign trail for The Columbus Dispatch backed Hansen’s version of events and said the GOP candidate had tried to grab part of the young operative’s camera.

The controversy is an unwelcome distraction for Mandel, who has trailed Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown by large margins in recent polling.

Other Senate polls: [Quinnipiac – CT]; [Marquette University – WI]; [WAM – NV]; [NBC/Marist/WSJ – FL]; [Gravist Marketing – FL]; [WAM – NM].

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