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Why the race is no longer about the economy

There's a larger strategy beneath the racially-charged lie.
There's a larger strategy beneath the racially-charged lie.

A curious thing happened earlier this month. For over a year, Mitt Romney and his campaign team ignored just about every issue in order to remain focused solely on jobs and the economy, demonstrating real message discipline, and rejecting everything else as a "distraction."

There's a larger strategy beneath the racially-charged lie.
There's a larger strategy beneath the racially-charged lie.

And then, the message changed. Jobs and the economy were out; welfare and contraception were in. Soon after, imaginary cuts to the Medicare trust fund were added to the GOP mix. As of last week, Romney even wants to talk about birth certificates.

The entire month of August has seen something no one expected: Romney has dropped the economy has his central focus. Did the Republican suddenly become undisciplined? On the contrary, Team Romney shifted gears because it felt a change in message was necessary.

The strategic shift in the campaign message that has been unfolding in recent weeks reflects a conclusion among Mr. Romney's advisers that disappointment with Mr. Obama's economic stewardship is not sufficient to propel Mr. Romney to victory on its own.

Republican strategists said that many middle-class voters had proved reluctant to give up entirely on Mr. Obama, and that they still needed to be convinced that Mr. Romney would look out for their interests.... Mr. Romney's chances hinge to a large degree on running up his advantage among white voters in swing states who show deep strains of opposition to Mr. Obama but do not yet trust Mr. Romney to look out for their interests, Republican strategists say.

The assumption has always been that in order for Romney to win, he'd have to exploit public frustration over the tepid recovery. But those assumptions are changing -- the economy is important, but it's not enough. The fact that economy is slowly improving, coupled with Romney's controversial private-sector background and failures in Massachusetts, has pushed the GOP ticket to look elsewhere for messages that will drive the campaign.

That's harder than it might seem. Romney doesn't want to push immigration, because he's struggling enough with Latino voters. He can't attack on health care, because Romney created the blueprint for Obama's reform law. He can't push national security, because the president has too many successes and Romney has struggled badly to learn the basics.

And so, the culture war -- most notably racially-charged welfare attacks that resonate with some white voters -- started to look pretty good. It's almost certainly what led Romney to pander to racists with his birther joke on Friday, and connected welfare to the Democratic "base" yesterday.

Tom Edsall has a very detailed look along these lines today, explaining that Romney and his aides have carefully and deliberately adopted a strategy "designed to turn the presidential contest into a racially freighted resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor."

Changing demographics will make this tack impossible in the future, making 2012 the last gasp of divisive Republican tactics at their ugliest and most offensive. It's remarkable, but Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is coming down to this: lie to white people in the hopes that a tribal class/race resentment can propel him to the Oval Office.

It speaks to a profound weakness in Romney's core character, and his complete abandonment of even the slightest shred of integrity, but that doesn't mean it won't work.