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First Thoughts: Two opposing forces

This election is a tug between who Americans like and the economy … The negative campaign takes a toll … who are the undecideds and why isn’t Romney talking to them … NBC/WSJ/Telemundo Hispanic oversample coming at noon ET … NBC’s Brian Williams interviews Romney … Obama responds to “you didn’t build that” … Romney’s hot rhetoric on foreign policy – does it match up with most Americans? … Plus, he shifts on support for timelines … Pro-Obama Super PAC goes very negative against Romney during Olympics.

*** Two opposing forces: Our new NBC/WSJ poll clearly shows that there are two forces at play in this presidential election: the economy (which is a drag on Obama) vs. likeability/values (which is a drag on Romney). Which force is stronger? The answer to that question will likely decide the election. Let's start with the growing economic pessimism in our poll:

*** The economy is Obama’s anchor: Just 27% think the U.S. economy will improve in the next year, which is down eight points from the last month, per the poll. Also, a majority of respondents -- 55% -- say they are less optimistic about the economy after what they've seen, read, and heard in the last few weeks, which is up six points from June. What's more, only 44% approve of Obama's handling of the economy (versus 49% who approve of his overall job performance), and Romney is seen as having better ideas on the economy. But Obama might find some comfort that his economic messaging of “fairness” tests better than Romney's messaging of “freedom,” and that he scores better on looking out for the middle class.

*** Romney continues to have a likeability and relatability problem: The other force at play, however, is likeability and values/background. A combined 47% say they like Romney personally, including 19% who disapprove of his policies. But that's compared with 67% who say the same about Obama. Another shortcoming for Romney is that voters don't necessarily relate to him. Just 42% say he has a background and set of values that they can identify with, while 50% say that about the president. And there's Romney's upside-down fav/unfav at 35%-40%. Consider this: Since 1996, no other GOP presumptive presidential nominee had a net-negative fav/unfav heading into his convention. In 1996, Bob Dole's score was 39%-36%; in 2000, George W. Bush's was 52%-32%; and in 2008, John McCain's was 42%-30%. Obama's fav/unfav in this current poll is 49%-43%.

*** The Horse Race: Overall, the president continues to lead Romney, 49%-43% in this survey. (By the way, we aren’t saying the president increased his lead, just that he CONTINUES to lead. Why? There’s a difference in Party ID from this month to last. Last month was +4 Democratic, this month it’s +11. If the poll was re-weighted to last month, the president would still lead but by between 2-3 points, according to our pollsters.) A few other nuggets on the horse race: The president leads in the swing states by the same 8-point margin he led by last month (49%-41%) but Romney leads the president among those voters who are the most “interested” in this election (48%-46%). In fact, that’s another takeaway from this poll, two of the president’s strongest demographic groups: Hispanics and voters 18-34, continue to lag behind the rest of the president’s support groups on the question of “interest in the election.” That’s a big potential turnout red flag for Chicago.

*** Negative campaign takes a toll: Yet maybe the biggest headline in our poll is the toll the negative contest has taken on Obama and Romney. Both candidates have seen their "very negative" ratings increase to all-time highs (32% for Obama and 24% for Romney). What's more, pluralities say that what they've seen, heard, and read about the two candidates in recent weeks has given them less favorable impressions of each man. Remember, there’s been an unusually early flurry of campaign ads. Seriously, go back in time and find a July that has seen so many negative TV ads being aired in swing states. It’s unprecedented. This was bound to take a toll, and it explains why the Obama campaign is suddenly putting their guy talking DIRECTLY to camera trying to soften the edges. (Here’s more from last night’s NBC Nightly News.)

*** Obama unlikely to win undecideds: One final very important point about the poll. Our pollsters went back through the last three months and gathered together all of the people who have said they are either “depends,” “neither,” or “not sure” when it comes to Romney vs. Obama to create a comprehensive look at the undecideds. And it’s not good news for the president. About the only thing the “undecided” are undecided on is the horse race. They have “decided” on how they view the president and the country. The “undecideds” are more pessimistic about the direction of the country and the economy and the job the president’s doing overall and on the economy. By any stretch, these should be people willing to fire Obama and vote for Romney – EXCEPT that they don’t like him very much at all. While Obama’s fav/unfav with the group is an abysmal 29%/42%, Romney’s is even WORSE – 16/44. 16!!! These voters, if they vote, won’t likely evenly split. It will be because Romney convinced them they should vote for him. But so far, almost none of his messaging/rhetoric looks like it’s appealing to them – and Obama’s Bain attacks likely are making an impact. As Tom Edsall wrote this week, the cynical hope for Obama here is that they stay home. By the way, these undecideds score low on the “interest”-in-election scale, even lower than Hispanics and young voters.

*** Hispanic oversample coming: Stay tuned for a noon ET release on the latest NBC-WSJ-Telemundo Hispanic oversample from the poll. Were there any changes from last month? What about intensity? Are they any more likely to vote for Obama now that the immigration policy has had a month to set in?

*** The ‘you didn’t build that’ dog barked: The Obama campaign is out with a new ad, responding to the “You didn’t build that” attack line. And it features the president again speaking direct to camera: “Those ads taking my words about small business out of context; they're flat out wrong. Of course Americans build their own business. Everyday hard-working people sacrifice to meet a payroll, create jobs, and make our economy run. And what I said was that we need to stand behind them as America always has. By investing in education, training, roads and bridges, research and technology. I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message because I believe we're all in this together." The Romney campaign responded this morning with a release with this in the subject: “He said it, he meant it.” Mark McKinnon on MSNBC’s Morning Joe asked Obama adviser David Axelrod, “We have a saying, ‘A hit dog barks, and it sounds like you’re barking, so does that mean you’re hit?” It’s a great way to put it, and it’s likely the case. Axelrod tried to downplay they campaigns’ hyper reaction. But it was a hyper reaction. You wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t showing up in some of their data. By the way, there have to be a few in Boston disappointed – strategically – to realize that their most effective hit so far on Obama was starting to stick and now their principal is going away on an overseas trip. Romney’s camp will be holding 24 “We Did Build This” events across the country today – in PA, WI, VA, OH, IA, FL, MO, NC, MI, NH, NM, NV – “to allow small business owners the chance to respond to Pres. Obama’s claims that ‘if you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen’,” the campaign says. But it’s just tougher to do with the candidate away.

*** Did Obama say to ‘stand behind’ businesses? “What I said was, ‘we need to stand behind them.’” Obama never said those exact words in his July 13 Roanoke, VA, speech. He did say: “I want to let every single person refinance their homes and save about $3,000 a year because you’ll spend that $3,000 on some of these stores right here in downtown. You’ll help small businesses and large businesses grow because they’ll have more customers.” And he called for “an economy where everyone, whether you are starting a business or punching a clock, can see your hard work and responsibility rewarded.” He also made a shared responsibility argument. “We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people….” It is notable, however, that in a speech in Virginia Beach later in the day he didn’t use the same “you didn’t build that” language. Clearly, the attacks have gotten to the campaign, and they felt like they needed to respond. Doing so with the candidate is an even further sign that the president and his team feared how damaging this line of attack could have been.

*** Going negative on Romney during Olympics: A new hard-hitting ad from pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA Action pokes fun at Romney's tenure at the helm of the SLC Olympics, NBC’s Carrie Dann notes. Using footage from the 2002 opening ceremonies, the ad shows athletes of various nationalities entering the Olympic stadium, with a commentator pointing out each country's links to Romney's record. For example: "India! Which also gained jobs thanks to Romney, an outsourcing pioneer."  And: "Ya gotta say this about Mitt Romney. He sure knows how to go for the gold...for himself," it concludes. The group claims it will run during the Olympics in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia and is part of a larger $20 million TV and online buy, according to staff. But realistically, don’t expect to actually see this ad make it on air. We guarantee you the Olympic Committee will come down hard on them and any affiliate that tries to air it.

*** Romney’s foreign policy shot: Romney assailed President Obama yesterday on foreign policy during his speech before the VFW. It was long on criticism and short on vision. And what part of that speech appealed to independents? (He did tip that he wouldn’t criticize Obama on foreign policy during his trip abroad: “[S]ince I wouldn't venture into another country to question American foreign policy, I will tell you right here - before I leave - what I think of this administration's shabby treatment of one of our finest friends.” A Romney doctrine is not at all clear at this point. There have been no “dumb war” moments for him. Put simply, there wasn’t a lot of meat on the bones. Ex-McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt on MSNBC’s Morning Joe was really tough on the speech, calling it an “unsophisticated” speech, not much more than a “paint-by-numbers Republican critique.” This is the risk for Romney this week – by wide margins, Americans say they prefer President Obama on foreign policy, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll. They just simply don’t share Romney’s contempt for the president’s policy as it relates to the world. Where Romney has the edge is on the economy, and this week will take him off that message, though he’ll get right back on it next week just in time for the Aug. 3 July jobs report.  By the way, will we hear more specifics on foreign policy, when NBC’s Brian Williams interviews Romney later today? Check out NBC Nightly News for more.

*** Romney’s timeline shift: Also notice this: Romney has been firmly against timelines, but adopted the president’s timeline on Afghanistan yesterday. In April 2010, he criticized Obama for “announcing the day he's pulling out” of Afghanistan. “If I'm Karzai, I say holy cow before the job is done these guys are going to leave. What does that mean about my life and livelihood?” And on NPR in March 2010, he explicitly said: “I would not have announced the date we're going to start pulling people out. I think that makes it more difficult at the time you're just adding troops.” Yet, here was Romney yesterday at the VFW: “I have been critical of the President’s decision to withdraw the surge troops during the fighting season, against the advice of the commanders on the ground.  President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions is arguing for endless war.  But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat. As president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders.  And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.”

Countdown to GOP convention: 33 days
Countdown to Dem convention: 40 days
Countdown to Election Day: 104 days

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