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Romney advisers: Election is about economy, not who is cooler candidate

WASHINGTON-- Focusing tightly on their campaign's economy-first message, a pair of Mitt Romney's top advisers on Saturday dismissed recent efforts by the president to reach out to younger voters and the so-called "likability gap" between President Barack Obama and the presumptive GOP nominee with a simple argument: The 2012 election is not a popularity contest.

"This election is not going to be about who's cooler," Romney senior adviser Peter Flaherty said at a Washington Post Live Newsmaker Forum. "The question is going to be, who do you trust to run the economy?"

Eric Fehrnstrom, another top Romney adviser, also criticized Obama for his appearance earlier this week on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," on the University of North Carolina campus, where the president "Slow Jammed the News." Fehrnstrom said the president's performace was "off key," and showed inappropriate levity about an issue - the possible doubling of student loan interest rates - that deserved to be taken more seriously.

"You won't see the governor slow jam the news," Fehrnstrom said, not discounting the possibility Romney could appear on more late-night talk shows or even "Saturday Night Live," thanks to the ability of those shows to reach voters who normally don't follow politics as closely. 

And while Fehrnstrom predicted Americans would "fall in love with" Ann and Mitt Romney as the election progressed, the advisers' downplaying of personal popularity in favor of an economic-competency argument is consistent with Romney's own recent comments on the stump.

"Even if you like Barack Obama, we can't afford Barack Obama," Romney said at a campaign event in North Carolina on Wednesday.

Romney's advisers also alluded to that trip to North Carolina - and other recent campaign events in swing states - as illustrative of how they see the electoral map playing out in November.

"There are a handful of states that we view as key to the outcome," Fehnrstrom said, in response to a question from the forum's moderator, The Washington Post's Dan Balz. While declining to lay out a specific "path to victory," as the Obama campaign has done, Fehrnstrom said the campaign's geographical focuses would not be a surprise to anyone who has followed their recent movements, and that New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Virginia and North Carolina were all places where "the campaign will be waged."

Asked if there was any one reliably Democratic state that could be moved into the Romney column this fall, Fehrnstrom predicted that Michigan, where the former Massachusetts governor was born and raised, could flip from blue to red. They're familiar with the Romney "brand" there, Fehrnstrom said.