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.

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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