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First Thoughts: Romney's challenging summer (so far)

Romney has had a challenging summer so far – as he heads into next week’s convention… And yet he remains well within striking distance of Obama… All eyes on Isaac with three days before the convention… Romney highlights his tenure at Bain Capital in WSJ op-ed… Romney and Ryan stump in Michigan at noon ET… And Romney and the empathy gap.

*** Romney’s challenging summer (so far): Having a hurricane potentially land on your convention sort of sums up what has been a rough summer for Mitt Romney. It began in June, when the presumptive GOP presidential nominee found himself on the defensive dealing with President Obama's immigration announcement and then the SCOTUS decision upholding the federal health-care law. Then came the attacks on Bain Capital, the outsourcing charges, and the questions over the tax returns. The supposedly low-risk overseas trip to Europe and Israel turned into negative headlines. And the week before the GOP convention, the story dominating the political headlines has been about Todd Akin, abortion, and rape. That said, there have been bright spots for the campaign over the past two months: the June jobs report, the fundraising success, and the Paul Ryan pick, which has moved the needle in some battleground states. But for the most part this summer, Romney has been on the defensive -- and he's behind, but only by the narrowest of margins.

*** And yet he remains well within striking distance: Right before this month began, we wrote that it was important for Romney to have a successful August; if you’re the challenger, August is typically the month when you want to start pulling ahead. And the month has been set up for Romney to make his move -- with the VP pick and the convention that begins next week. But with one event down (the VP pick) and one to go (the convention), the GOP ticket hasn’t pulled ahead, either nationally or on the map. And yet… Romney remains in the game. We’ll repeat what NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) told us earlier this week as our poll showed Obama with a 48%-44% advantage: “When a guy gets stuck at 48%, it doesn’t mean they are out of the clear. It means they are in an incredibly competitive campaign.” What’s more, a top Romney adviser tells First Read that the race has been stable over the past couple of months, but that polling shows Romney -- after the Ryan pick and the welfare attacks on Obama -- has narrowed the gap with the president. So as we head into this fall's baseball pennant races, a baseball analogy might be appropriate: Romney's a couple games back heading into his convention next week. 

*** All eyes on Isaac: Speaking of the convention, all eyes remain fixed on Isaac. The AP: “Tropical Storm Isaac churned toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti late Thursday, although forecasters said it now appeared less likely to become a hurricane while in the Caribbean. It still posed a potential threat to take a shot at Florida as a hurricane just as the Republicans gather for their national convention.” But at publication time, there was some hope that Isaac could move just west of Tampa. As the Washington Post and New York Times have reported, the roll call formally nominating Romney will take place on Monday instead of the usual Wednesday. (Convention planners say this Monday roll call was announced had been previously announced..) The New York Times’ Zeleny reports: “It is a change in the script from previous conventions, where the formal nomination usually takes place on the second to last night of the convention. It is a formality, and Mr. Romney will still deliver his acceptance speech on Thursday evening, but the change is significant and an effort to keep the convention focused tightly on Mr. Romney… Russ Schriefer, a top strategist for the Romney campaign who is overseeing convention planning, said the roll call vote will be timed for Mr. Romney to formally clinch the nomination when the network news programs begin their broadcasts on Monday evening.”

*** Romney highlights Bain record: Three days before the convention begins -- and before Romney officially becomes the nominee -- the former Massachusetts governor pens an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal highlighting his business tenure at Bain Capital, which has become a point of contention in this campaign. Citing the successes at Bain Capital, Romney writes, “The lessons I learned over my 15 years at Bain Capital were valuable in helping me turn around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. They also helped me as governor of Massachusetts to turn a budget deficit into a surplus and reduce our unemployment rate to 4.7%. The lessons from that time would help me as president to fix our economy, create jobs and get things done in Washington.” But the Obama campaign takes issue with the op-ed, arguing that it’s an “attempt at convention re-invention” and that Romney is cherry-picking the Bain record. “[W]e already know that Mitt Romney’s tenure as a corporate buyout specialist was not about creating jobs, it was about creating profits for himself and his investors, no matter the cost to workers, companies, or communities,” an Obama spokesman emails. 

*** Romney returns to Michigan: At noon ET, Romney and Ryan hold a joint rally in Commerce, MI. The Detroit News reported earlier this week that this is Romney’s first visit to Michigan in two months -- and the event takes place in Oakland County, a swing part of the state that hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential contest since 1988. Michigan, which is Lean Democrat on NBC’s battleground map, is Romney’s native state. And the visit will draw attention to Romney’s opposition to the auto bailout, as well as Ryan’s vote in favor of it in Dec. 2008.

*** Romney and the empathy gap: As our new NBC/WSJ poll made pretty clear, Romney faces an empathy gap in this election, trailing Obama by 22 points (52%-30%) on which candidate is viewed as better caring about average people. Earlier this week, Romney may have demonstrated this disadvantage when he was talking about student loans and education. “You don't max out their credit card if you will by giving them something that they're having to pay for down the road plus interest. What you do is you make sure that we do not pass on trillions of dollars in debts to the next generation. We live within our means and give them the kind of economic start they deserve." And that followed what a the candidate told a high-school senior in March about rising college costs. “The best thing I can do for you is to tell you to shop around and compare tuition in different places.” But here’s the thing:  60 percent of American students, 12 million a year or so, turn to student loans -- because they can’t afford the price of college. When Romney talks about students maxing “out their credit card” or needing to “shop around,” Romney is ignoring that many deserving and high-achieving students simply can’t afford current costs for college.

*** And be sure to tune in (or set your DVRs): Chuck Todd’s documentary “Mitt Romney: The Making of a Candidate” airs tonight at 10:00 pm ET on MSNBC.

Countdown to GOP convention: 3 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 10 days
Countdown to 1st presidential debate: 40 days
Countdown to VP debate: 48 days
Countdown to 2nd presidential debate: 53 days
Countdown to 3rd presidential debate: 59 days
Countdown to Election Day: 74 days

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