How Romney's Referendum Became Obama's Choice

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Then the economy, or at least people's perception about it, turned around somewhat. In late August, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 29 percent of Americans thought the country was on the "right track." In late September, 38 percent of Americans did. The "wrong track" numbers fell from 69 percent to 60 percent. Not great numbers, but the trend is notable.

At the same time, Obama saw improvement in his standing in swing states, where the spotlight of the election shines brightest.

Then, that "47 Percent" tape was released and struck a chord with Americans. It enabled the Obama campaign and Democrats to do exactly what Romney predicted -- vilify him.

In his address to the Democratic convention, Obama argued that this election offered the "clearest choice in a generation" -- and two paths for America.

"Now, our friends at the Republican convention were more than happy to talk about everything they think is wrong with America, but they didn't have much to say about how they'd make it right. They want your vote, but they don't want you to know their plan," said Obama.

In a vacuum, the Obama campaign has been able, at least thus far, to dictate some aspects of the choice. Do voters want to reserve the current Medicare system or change it for generations down the road? Do they want to raise taxes on the rich or the middle class? Do they want to wind down America's wars or not?

The answers to those questions aren't as simple as either side would have you believe. But Romney has been forced to react.

There was a specific pivot by Romney's campaign in late September to shift his message away from being simply "not Obama."

"We're going to continue to talk about the failures of the president's policies," said Romney strategist Ed Gillespie, "but, as I noted here, we're going to talk about that in a forward frame, in a forward-looking discussion about how four more years of the last four years is not going to be good for the American people. And so as we go into these first debates, we do see an opportunity to put a greater emphasis on that choice."

Romney, himself, told ABC News' David Muir two days later, "I'm going to describe very clearly what I will do to get America working again and the president will describe his own view, and I believe the American people are going to side with me."

Romney also has moved in the direction of more specifics on his tax plan, what he would do about the children of illegal immigrants and more.

The conventional wisdom about the election long was that if Romney was talking about Barack Obama and his failures, he had an upper hand. But the series of developments in within and beyond Romney's control has turned the debate from an Obama referendum to a choice between visions.

It's late for a new strategy, yet it also could be a case of perfect timing. Romney will be on equal footing with the president tonight. If he's as direct and specific as he's promising to be -- and is more of both than his rival -- Romney could start his comeback.

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