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Breaking down the candidates' vulnerabilities

It’s safe to say that whichever candidate better addresses his vulnerabilities will have more success in Wednesday’s debate.
/ Source: NBC News

Heading into tomorrow night’s first presidential debate, both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have two big vulnerabilities that his opponent can exploit. And it’s safe to say that whichever candidate better addresses his vulnerabilities will have more success in Wednesday’s debate. For Obama, one of his vulnerabilities is that he hasn’t fully described what a second term would look like.

Yes, in both his convention speech and his two-minute TV ad, he’s mentioned things like adding a million new manufacturing jobs and hiring 100,000 new math and science teachers. But how does he accomplish those things? Where does something like comprehensive immigration reform fit in? And given the fact there is some hunger for change, what change can the incumbent promise that will seem credible?

Obama’s second vulnerability — which he really didn’t mention in his convention speech — is to explain how his re-election would break the partisan fever in Washington. As he admitted in his recent “60 Minutes” interview, “I'm the first one to confess that the spirit that I brought to Washington, that I wanted to see instituted … I haven't fully accomplished that — haven't even come close in some cases. And you know, if you ask me what's my biggest disappointment is that we haven't changed the tone in Washington as much as I would have liked.”

For Mitt Romney, a big vulnerability is that he hasn’t differentiated his economic policies from George W. Bush’s. Yes, in interview after interview, he has said he’ll pursue a different path, but out of the five principles in his economic message — 1) take advantage of domestic energy resources, 2) give Americans the job skills they need, 3) forge new trade agreements, 4) balance the budget, and 5) reduce taxes — Bush aggressively acted on ALL OF THEM save balancing the budget. Romney’s other big vulnerability is his lack of specificity: He has yet to say how he’ll pay for his big tax cuts.

In fact, here’s what he said yesterday to a Denver TV affiliate. “What we’re going to do is bring down the rates for everybody, and at the same time we’re going to limit deductions and credits and so forth for people at the high end.” Pressed for specifics, Romney added: “As an option you could say everybody’s going to get up to a $17,000 deduction; and you could use your charitable deduction, your home mortgage deduction, or others… And higher income people might have a lower number. Or you could do it by the same method that Bowles-Simpson did it where you could limit certain deductions, but that’s the sort of thing you do with Congress.”

Romney says he won’t revoke temporary visas for qualified young illegal immigrants: But Romney did get more specific on one issue: President Obama’s announcement that his administration would no longer deport qualified young illegal immigrants.

After being pressed — for almost four months — on what he’d do about Obama’s action, Romney finally told the Denver Post yesterday he wouldn’t revoke their temporary visas. "The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid. I'm not going to take something that they've purchased," he said. "Before those visas have expired we will have the full immigration reform plan that I've proposed."

So, on the one hand, you have Romney saying in recent interviews that he won’t revoke Obama’s executive action on young illegal immigrants, that he’s the “grandfather of Obamacare,” and that he’s empathetic because he was able to get all Massachusetts residents health insurance.

But on the other hand, one of us saw — firsthand — all the conservative red meat he gave at his rally in Denver last night. Solyndra. Card check. Keystone. Even a shout-out to Focus on the Family. Indeed, you can see his stump speeches as his play to the base, while his media interviews are his courting of the middle. Perhaps that’s the correct balance, but the courting of the middle is still only VERY recent.

There are two new national polls that find the presidential race in pretty much the same place among likely voters. CNN has it at Obama 50%, Romney 47%, and Quinnipiac has it Obama 49%, Romney 45%. The number that’s fluid is Romney’s, not Obama’s.

Are we seeing some natural tightening with Romney’s number? The end of Obama’s month-long bounce? But the number to watch has always been Obama’s: If he’s at 49% or 50%, that’s a winning number in this election. There were two bounces in the last month — one for Obama and one for Romney (in the wrong direction). What these national polls show is that Obama’s bounce is holding; Romney’s negative bounce, to Boston’s relief, is disappearing.