Aug. 5, 2012 — -- The nation has met Barack Obama's Mitt Romney. If it's going to meet Romney's version of himself, it will happen this month, or not at all.
It was supposed to start last month, with picked-up ad spending and a foreign trip built around a choreographed Olympic moment. But the foreign trip fell flat amid distractions at every stop, and Democrats continued to break through with their assault on Romney's transparency and business record.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus fired back today on ABC News' "This Week," calling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "a dirty liar" for his unsubstantiated suggestion that Romney didn't pay taxes for a decade.
"This is just a made-up issue," Priebus said. "And the fact that we're going to spend any time talking about it is ridiculous."
While Priebus is right to call out Reid for making an irresponsible claim, the fact that Republicans including Romney, himself, are forced to respond to it speaks to the need for Romney to find a fresh start in his campaign's proactive messaging.
Republicans are complaining about Democrats' campaign tactics, while Democrats are talking about a topic they much prefer to defending the Obama economy. Reid doesn't need defenders for his real message to penetrate, and Romney's refusal to release more than two years' worth of taxes keeps the issue open for exploitation.
"I do know that Mitt Romney could clear this up in 10 seconds by releasing the 23 years of tax returns that he gave to John McCain when he was being vetted for vice president," Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz responded on "This Week."
Romney wants to move on, and August brings two big opportunities: his choice of a running mate, and the Republican National Convention, which comes before the Democrats' convention and therefore gives Romney a cleaner chance of using it to put the best shine on his record and his vision.
The vice-presidential choice is of particular importance because it remains the only big move Romney has that President Obama doesn't. Waiting until August to make his choice has given Romney a touch more flexibility in maximizing his choice and building up his convention as a critical moment.
The two safest choicest remain as they've always been: Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Romney has always been inclined to go in a direction like this, with an experienced -- if less-than-exciting -- manager who underscores what Team Romney sees as the most compelling message the candidate offers.
But a few other choices offer intriguing opportunities for Romney to go in different directions. Those names remain in the mix, according to Republicans involved on the periphery of the process.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, though still an unlikely choice, offers a dynamic road into fresh demographic territory. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal packages that with executive experience and rock-solid conservative credentials.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is getting the most late buzz, and there's a reason for that: No short-lister carries as much risk or as many potential rewards. Democrats would be thrilled with the choice, since the Ryan budget plan is easy to demonize and makes for a pre-made playbook against a Romney-Ryan ticket.
But on the flipside, Ryan would instantly flesh out Romney's policy credentials. He would also provide some generational and geographic balance -- and has a touch of star power that could go mainstream.
The bad news for Romney is that he's entering the veepstakes and convention period battered and slightly down in the race. The polls point to a narrow but relatively consistent Obama edge in key battleground states -- the same states that have been bombarded with early campaign advertising and messaging.
The good news for Romney is that it's still very close. Obama's spending binge has erased his financial edge as the period where voters are paying closest attention approaches.
Romney has some big moves ahead of him -- and he'll need them to shake up a race where the dynamics should be favorable to a challenger. Above all, he's hoping for a change in subject as the summer winds down.