From now until the third and final presidential debate, and quite probably even after that, President Obama and Mitt Romney will fight on the ground, over the airwaves, and in social media over the four Ls and four swing states.
Each of the Ls is a symbol of a larger issue. They are, in no particular order: Libya, Ledbetter, Lying, and Lame. The four swing states are Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada (more on them in minute).
1. Libya is about presidential leadership, accountability, the U.S. approach to perils and possibilities of the so-called Arab Spring and the gathering threat of what appears to be a reconstituted Qaida-inspired terror cells in North Africa. After the debate, Romney advisers and supporters conceded the governor was far from adroit when he confronted Obama. "We'll have to spend a couple of days unpacking Libya," chief Romney policy adviser Lanhee Chen admitted. But top Republicans say the continued scrutiny of what Obama said about the attacks--generically referring to "acts of terror" while for days characterizing it as an act of mob violence touched off by a Web video that insulted the Prophet Muhammad--will redound to Romney's favor. "The Libya thing is just a nightmare for Obama," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "You just can't bend the truth like that." Top Obama surrogates who said that Romney fumbled the issue are eager to revisit it in Monday's foreign-policy debate. "It gave him reason to be confrontational," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
2. Ledbetter is about the first law Obama signed, which actually dealt with the time available to litigate equal-pay disputes but has become a proxy for a bundle of issues (access to and subsides for contraception, abortion rights, fair treatment for women in the workplace, and education) that have historically commanded the attention of suburban women in close, all-other-things-being-equal elections. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., voted against passage of the bill and Romney opposed it when it was before Congress but would not repeal it now.
"Women's issues will be a huge driver in this election," said senior White House adviser and 2008 Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "And we intend to use issues raised in that debate against Romney." The Obama campaign wants to pounce on Romney's denial of trying to interfere with access to subsidized contraceptives by reminding voters he backed the so-called Blunt amendment that would have given employers broader authority to opt out of contraceptive coverage requirements. "Romney clearly does not support access to contraceptives in women's health care," said Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans call the charge laughable. "The Obama campaign would have you believe the governor wants to pull condoms off the shelves at Walmart," Chen said. "It's a ridiculous argument."
The GOP also argues late-deciding voters will make their choice based on the economy because it tips the scales lopsidedly against Obama. "When Romney leveled his indictment of President Obama on where we are, the president became meek and just hid away," Priebus said. "The No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy. It transcends everything--gender, race and religion."
3. Lying is what both campaigns say the others do, but it was a far more forceful component of Obama's Hofstra approach. What energized Democrats so much about Obama's performance was his aggressive criticism of Romney's current policies, his record as governor, and how he's tried to waffle on issues like tax cuts, immigration, and Wall Street reform since the primaries. Every Obama campaign aide or surrogate (I spoke to five) used the word "sketchy" to describe Romney's policies. O'Malley went further, calling Romney's explanation of his 5-point jobs plan vague and his tax-reform proposal "contemptible and laughable."
Romney advisers said that Obama fudged the facts on Libya, misstated the price tag of Romney's tax plan, and was misleading about energy production on federal lands. Moreover, Romney aides said the bigger problem for Obama--and one they predicted will stick in the craw of undecided voters--was the president's tendency to duck direct questions on high gasoline prices, the lack of beefed up security for U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya, and why he didn't keep a promise to submit a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first year in office. Romney advisers are already looking to cut attack TV ads on Obama's energy answers from the Hofstra debate.
4. Lame is the Obama economic record and whether it is his fault or former President George W. Bush's. For Romney's team, as it has been throughout the campaign, nothing matters more and no ground will be won or lost that doesn't tread over the terrain of economic satisfaction or dissatisfaction. "We intend to prosecute the president on his economic record," said Chen who, like the three other Romney aides or surrogates I spoke with, invoked the word "prosecute" to describe the coming economic debate. Romney advisers know polling data from the first two debates show Romney won in both contests on the question of who can better run the economy and split at Hofstra on who would most help the middle class. They believe these impressions will be determinative down the stretch. "The governor and Paul Ryan have talked to the nation three times now about plans and goals for the future," said Romney adviser Kevin Madden. "The president and Biden haven't at all. That will matter."