US election digest: Romney faces debate test, fresh questions over Libya and more

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


US Campaign Briefing 30/09/12

Presidential Race

Romney seeks rebound as first debate approaches

The presidential contenders are setting expectations for the first televised debate this Wednesday, amid efforts by Mitt Romney to regain the initiative following his gaffe about Americans who do not pay income tax.

Aides to the Republican candidate have released a memo inflating President Obama’s reputation as a “universally-acclaimed public speaker”, as senior Republican leaders including Senator Rob Portman and ex-Bush adviser Karl Rove imply the Democrat will twist the truth during his encounter with Romney. The former governor’s advisers have also intimated Romney will look to put the President in a bind with ‘zingers’ he has been memorising for weeks.

Obama’s campaign has responded by noting the glut of debates the former Governor participated in during GOP primary season, and claimed part of Obama’s debate preparation was cancelled in light of the turmoil in the Middle East.

Much of the pressure going into Wednesday’s showdown rests on Romney’s shoulders: conservative pundits have argued he must use the debate to boost his faltering prospects, while GOP campaign veterans are warning momentum could shift decisively away from the former Governor if he does not land a knockout blow. There has been further frustration within Republican ranks about the way Romney’s presidential bid has been run.

One pollster admitted the Obama campaign had succeeded in defining the GOP nominee, with other operatives angry about his weak showing in Ohio and even people close to the former Governor lamenting his inadequacies as a candidate. In a network interview on Sunday, New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie said he could not “sugarcoat” the last two weeks for his party’s nominee although he forecast the race would be “upside-down” come Thursday morning.

In an effort to limit the damage caused by his most recent gaffe, Romney has released a lengthy new ad in which he softens his tone towards President Obama and emphasises the compassionate elements of his economic agenda. He has also highlighted his moderate record in Massachusetts, talking up his ability to find “common ground” with Democrats and once again embracing his reform of the Bay State’s healthcare system.

However, the President’s team continues to remind voters about Romney’s secretly-recorded misstep, and it is unclear whether his most ardent backers will tolerate a gentler approach.

Further details about Wednesday’s debate at the University of Denver – and preparations for it – can be found here.

Admin faces fresh criticism over Libya

The assault on the US consulate in Benghazi remains a point of contention in Washington and on the campaign trail, as the top authority on US intelligence admitted it had changed its view of the attack that led to the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens. In an unusual intervention, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it now regarded the incident as a “deliberate and organised terrorist attack” carried out by extremists. It also stated that some of those involved had ties to groups “affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qaeda”.

The agency’s new interpretation – which is shared by Defence Secretary Leon Panetta – was released as Republicans and Democrats pressed the Obama administration over the affair. Arizona Senator John McCain blasted the administration for its “disgraceful” suggestion that the attack had grown out of a spontaneous demonstration, while former GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee said the President’s team had “flat-out lied” to the American public.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is led by Democrat John Kerry, meanwhile sent a letter to the State Department requesting an “accounting” of the attacks against US missions in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Kerry however dismissed calls for the resignation of UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who is vying with him to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State but has been faulted for questionable statements about the tragedy in Benghazi. The Republican presidential nominee has in recent days scaled back his criticisms of how the President responded to the assault, as his advisers disagree about how he should approach the issue.

Ex-Obama campaign manager and White House aide David Plouffe extended the row on Sunday when he told ABC News’s ‘This Week’ that the consulate attack had not been an intelligence failure.

Candidates place calls to Netanyahu following UN appearance

Both President Obama and Romney have spoken to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, hours after he delivered an address to the UN General Assembly on the subject. Speaking via telephone on Friday, Obama and the Israeli leader said they were in “full agreement” on their “shared goal” of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu also welcomed the President’s vow to “do what we must” to stop the Islamic Republic obtaining a bomb. The Premier took a slightly different view during a subsequent call with Romney, agreeing with the GOP nominee that an Iran with nuclear weapons capability was unacceptable. Romney himself later said he was in favour of a “strategy that would lead us to preventing Iran from developing nuclear capability”, although he did not believe the US would have to take military action. During his UN speech – which featured a cartoonish graphic illustrating Tehran’s nuclear progress – Netanyahu sought to build bridges with Obama, recognising the strength of sanctions introduced by Washington and indicating his support for a more flexible timetable when it came to armed intervention.

A poll conducted for the American Jewish Committee has revealed Jewish voters favour Obama over Romney by 41%, and rate the economy, healthcare and abortion as more important issues than Israel.

Talk of GOP tax plan change dismissed

The Romney campaign has refuted speculation their candidate might alter his tax plan after a senior adviser hinted Romney could keep higher rates for top earners instead of delivering a blanket cut of 20% across all income brackets. A spokesperson for the Republican told Talking Points Memo all aspects of the ex-governor’s blueprint were achievable, and that he would work with Congress to “enact tax reform that meets each of the goals he has proposed”. Aide Kevin Hassett had earlier said Romney could scale back some of the cuts to avoid increasing the deficit or placing a greater burden on poor Americans.

In related news, Politico has used a Congressional Budget Office analysis to calculate that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s budget plan would not be able to meet its target of cutting taxes and balancing America’s finances by 2040 but for a cut to Medicare spending growth which the Wisconsin Congressman quietly pencilled in last spring. Senior House Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who is playing the part of Ryan in Joe Biden’s debate rehearsals, has claimed the change would mean retirees pay more to “provide a tax break for people like Mitt Romney”.

Ryan Medicare plan may be cause of poll slump

A new poll released by The Washington Post has suggested Paul Ryan’s approach to reforming Medicare may be behind Romney’s poor showing in swing states, with voters in Florida, Ohio and Virginia hostile to wholesale reform of the entitlement. Findings compiled by the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation showed big majorities in all three states agreeing changes were needed to make Medicare stable, but also found many voters want the scheme to be maintained in its current form.

Respondents across all three tossup states who said Medicare was extremely important to their vote went for President Obama over his Republican challenger by 59% to 36%, while those rating it very important preferred the Democrat by 53% to 43%. Obama’s campaign appeared to exploit this opening towards the end of the week, as Vice President Biden faulted the GOP candidates over Medicare and accused them of wishing to tax social security benefits during a visit to the Sunshine State.

President Obama has continued to outpace Romney in national and statewide polls since this time last week, although his leads in the battlegrounds have varied. Marist showed him up by small-to-middling margins in Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina, while Public Policy Polling found him tied with Romney in the Tar Heel State and 4% in front in Ohio. Both ARG and Suffolk gave the Democrat a 2% advantage in Virginia, with The Des Moines Register putting his ahead by 4% in Iowa. A survey by a GOP consulting firm has suggested Romney’s lead is down to 4% in Arizona, something that may encourage the Obama campaign to further step up efforts in the Grand Canyon State.

Further polls: [WaPo/ABC News] [Gallup] [Fox News] ] [Gravis Marketing – MI] [Morning Call – PA] [Howey/Depauw – IN]

Mixed news on economic front

Statistics published this week have offered a varied picture of the US economy as the final weeks of the campaign approach. Revised figures released by the Department of Commerce showed growth for the second quarter of the year down from 1.7% to 1.3%, as the effects of the Midwest drought were factored into estimates. Elsewhere there were further signs of an uptick in consumer confidence, and revised data from the Labour Department showed 386,000 new jobs were created in the twelve months before March 2012. This change means the economy has gained a net 100,000 posts since President Obama came to power. Mitt Romney seized on the faltering growth numbers while on the stump in Virginia on Thursday, arguing “this is not just one quarter” and that America could not afford “four more years of the last four years”. Obama’s campaign hit back, accusing the Republican of “cherry picking” the latest findings to suit his “false narrative”.

Voting underway in IA

Early voting has commenced in Iowa, with the presidential campaigns encouraging their supporters in the Midwestern swing state to cast their ballots. Hawkeye State residents will be able to vote in advance of election day at local county offices and secondary polling locations, as well as via absentee ballot. Iowa is the first battleground to start early voting, which last election accounted for 30% of the state’s overall turnout. Several other states which are too close to call will follow suit through October, with voters in Florida, Nevada and Colorado getting their chance to vote towards the close of the month.

In other news, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has handed down a ruling that will make it difficult for voter laws backed by local Republicans to be reinstated in time for the election, and a judge in Pennsylvania has hinted he could dilute voter ID requirements introduced by the Keystone State’s GOP-controlled legislature. Florida’s Governor Rick Scott is meanwhile attempting to revive a purge of noncitizen voters from electoral rolls despite allegations of discrimination.

Obama Campaign – Other News:

• Calls for ‘economic patriotism’ in new ad [BuzzFeed];

• Blocks China wind farm plan [Financial Times]; smacks Romney over outsourcing again [NYT];

• Soros to write big cheque for Priorities USA [NBC News];

• Clinton to campaign in NH [WaPo];

• Big majority sees health law staying [AP];

• Wall Street expecting victory [Politico];

• Education secretary would stay in second term [National Journal];

• Crossroads ties to Bernanke [YouTube];

• Wife of Dem donor & Univision owner awarded UN post [Politico];

• Cameron aides dismiss talk of phonecall snub [BBC News];

• JK Rowling sides with on “You didn’t build that” [WaPo]

Romney Campaign – Other News:

• Favourability lower than Dubya’s [Huffington Post];

• Deplores automatic defence cuts during VA stop [CBS]; gets angry over vet suicides [BuzzFeed];

• Boasts he’ll win PA [NBC News];

• Claimed Bain would ‘harvest’ companies for profit in 1980s video [Mother Jones]; ex-workers to serve as Obama debate surrogates [Politico];

• Interrogation policy causes a stir [Telegraph];

• Individual retirement accounts in spotlight [TPM];

• Launches fresh coal attack [Human Events];

• Jim Webb blasts lack of Vietnam service [BuzzFeed];

• Ryan compares Middle East turmoil to Iran hostage crisis [The Guardian]; reassures right over chances [National Review];

• Ann worries for mental well-being if elected [CBS];

• Early gesture of love for wife recalled [Time];

• Did not fail to start “Romney-Ryan” chant [Slate];

• Golfing great Niklaus joins in OH [ABC News]

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