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First Thoughts: Halftime

We’ve reached halftime in the Obama-vs.-Romney contest… Romney’s rough Thursday in England and he tries to clean up the mess… NBC’s Matt Lauer interviews Romney on “TODAY”… Obama camp goes up with its Olympics TV spot… And why doesn’t the public know Romney better?

*** Halftime: With tonight's Olympics opening ceremonies, we've now reached essentially halftime in this presidential contest. Keeping with the sports analogy, the two teams are going into the locker room with Obama ahead of Romney -- 14-13 if it's a football game, 49-43 if it's basketball. In other words, it's still anyone's game. Both sides have had their share of smart play and boneheaded mistakes, and now we get a chance to breathe, relax, and prepare for the second half, which kicks off with Romney's VP and the two conventions. The fourth quarter starts with the debates (three between the presidential candidates and one between the VPs). As we wrote earlier this week, the Obama-Romney race is beginning to boil down to a pull of two forces: the economy (which is a drag on Obama) vs. likeability (which is a drag on Romney).

*** Romney’s rough Thursday: But if it's now halftime, Team Romney -- with what happened in Great Britain yesterday -- concluded it by committing a false start, a holding penalty, and then an interception. Yes, yesterday was that bad. Bottom line: Romney's interview with NBC's Brian Williams, in which the presumptive GOP nominee said there are some "disconcerting" signs about the London Games' security and preparations, ignited a controversy in Great Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron responded, "We're holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course, it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere." (Cameron’s obvious reference to “nowhere” -- Salt Lake.) And the British press pounced. The Guardian: “Mitt Romney's Olympics blunder stuns No 10 and hands gift to Obama.” The Daily Telegraph: “Mitt Romney's Olympics gaffe overshadows visit to London.” The London Times: “Romneyshambles: PM’s snub.” And London Mayor Boris Johnson topped it off by saying at a rally: “There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready?" Ouch.

*** Clean up in Aisle 5: Romney later tried to clean up the mess after visiting Cameron at 10 Downing Street, “offering effusive praise for the London games, and calling the city's preparation for the event ‘really quite an accomplishment,’” NBC’s Garrett Haake reports. “I don’t know of any Olympics that’s ever been able to run without any mistakes whatsoever, but they’re small, and I was encouraged, for instance to see, things that could have represented a real challenge—such as immigration and customs officers on duty, that is something which was resolved and the people are all pulling together,” Romney said, later adding: “I’m very delighted with the prospects of a highly successful Olympic games.” Earlier this week, we wrote how risk-averse Romney's trip (to England, Israel, and Poland) was, at least compared with Obama's four years ago. But Romney's first full day on his trip proved that you can stumble even on the easiest of routines. Today's agenda: He has a photo spray with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Ireland’s embassy in London at 10:15 am ET, and attends the opening ceremony, which begins at 4:00 pm ET.

*** Romney’s interview with Matt Lauer: But before that, Romney and his wife sat down for an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer on “TODAY.” Asked to respond to all the controversy in Britain, Romney said, “After being here for a couple of days, it looks to me like London is ready.” When Lauer followed up, inquiring if Romney is walking back his earlier remarks, the GOP candidate said he’s “absolutely convinced” that London is ready and that the athletic events will overshadow anything said by the politicians. Lauer also asked Romney if he was proud of the campaign he’s running, given all the negativity. His response: I’m proud that my campaign has focused on the economy. And Romney -- once again -- said he wouldn’t be releasing more of his tax returns.

*** Obama’s Olympics TV ad: Speaking of the Olympics, the Obama campaign is up with the TV ad it’s going to air during the opening ceremony of the Summer Games. It’s a positive spot, with fast-paced music and words from Obama while on the campaign trail. “We're a nation of workers and doers and dreamers. We work hard for what we get. And all we ask for is that our hard work pays off,” Obama says. “I believe that the way you grow the economy is from the middle out. I believe in fighting for the middle class -- because if they're  prospering, all of us will prosper. That's the idea of America, and that's why America is the greatest nation on earth." At 10:15 am ET, the president signs the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act (interestingly just before Romney heads to Israel), and he holds two fundraisers in McLean, VA.

*** Why doesn’t the public know Romney better? We want to make one final point at this halftime juncture of the presidential contest. In his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Romney was asked why Americans don’t know him better. His answer: “I realize this is still early for a lot of people in the political process. Labor Day is usually the time when people focus more attention on candidates…[M]ost folks won't really get to see me until the debates and will get a better sense of the character that I have. And I guess also my wife and my sons and daughters-in-law, they're doing the best job they can to get the real story about who I am.” But chew on this: Romney has been actively running for the White House for six years now. As Charlie Cook writes in National Journal, “In my judgment, Romney’s poor [poll] numbers go back to his campaign’s obsession with talking only about the economy and not attempting to define who Romney is as a person, as a way to build trust and strong positive personal feelings toward their candidate.” If you look at the fundamentals of this race, Romney should be ahead. And the fact is, he’s not. Why not? Because he has fumbled his biography. When you have to say there’s still time to introduce yourself, it’s a tacit admission that you haven’t done it yet.

Countdown to GOP convention: 31 days

Countdown to Dem convention: 38 days

Countdown to Election Day: 102 days

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