How Romney's Referendum Became Obama's Choice

VIDEO: President Obama, Mitt Romney prepare to take the stage in Denver.
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There's a little more than a month before we find out who is going to win the election between President Obama and Mitt Romney. With three debates remaining, it is a tossup -- and anybody who tells you they know otherwise is lying.

But there's one aspect of the argument where the Obama campaign can claim victory.

Is this election a choice or a referendum?

For months through the primary campaign earlier this year, through the spring and into the summer, Mitt Romney's campaign made clear that it wanted this election to be a referendum on Obama -- his economy, his economic policy, the health law that has come to bear his name, his foreign policy and his personality.

But events and the Obama campaign conspired against him.

Tune in to ABCNews.com on Wednesday for livestreaming coverage of the first 2012 Presidential Debate from Denver, Colo. Coverage kicks off with ABC News' live preview show at noon, and full debate coverage begins at 8 p.m.

The main thrust of Romney's argument was that Obama might be a good guy, but he has been a disappointing president. Romney was the alternative for anyone disappointed in Obama.

"You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him," Romney said in his address to the Republican National Convention. "The president hasn't disappointed you because he wanted to. The president has disappointed America because he hasn't led America in the right direction."

The strategy has been laced throughout the Romney campaign, even in private moments. In that video that yielded the now-famous "47 percent" quote, Romney explained his campaign strategy and how he will appeal to the small portion of voters who he thinks he can reach.

"The best success I have speaking with those people is, you know, the president's been a disappointment," Romney said. "He told you he'd keep unemployment below 8 percent, hasn't been below 8 percent since. Fifty percent of kids coming out of school can't get a job. Fifty percent. Fifty percent of the kids in high school in our 50 largest cities won't graduate from high school. What are they gonna do? ... I could say to that audience that they nod their heads and say, 'Yeah, I think you're right.'

"What's he going to do, by the way," Romney added, "is try and vilify me as someone who's been successful, or who's closed business or laid people off -- an evil, bad guy. And that may work. I actually think that, right now, people are saying, 'I want somebody who can make things better, that's gonna motivate me, who can get jobs for my kids and get rising incomes.' And I hope to be able to be the one who wins that battle."

That's the definition of a referendum. Romney wanted the election to be entirely about Obama. But it didn't turn out that way.

For starters, Romney picked Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., architect of controversial plans to alter American entitlement programs, as his running mate. Democrats in congressional races had long used the "Ryan Plan" as a sort of bogeyman to attack Republicans for wanting to end Social Security.

The move enabled Romney to energize his base and argue to independents that he was serious about making tough choices and embracing big ideas to deal with the deficit and the debt.

However, it also diverted the focus of the campaign conversation from President Obama's record.

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