Washington. With one year to go until Election Day in the United States, the Republican presidential field is deeply unsettled, leaving President Barack Obama only to guess who his opponent will be. But the race’s contours are starting to come into view.
It’s virtually certain that the campaign will be a close, grinding affair, markedly different from the 2008 race. It will play out amid widespread economic anxiety and heightened public resentment of government and politicians.
Americans who were drawn to the drama of Obama’s barrier-breaking primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the up-and-down fortunes of the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin, are likely to see a more partisan contest this time, with Ohio and Florida playing crucial roles as they did in 2000 and 2004.
Republicans have their script; they just need to pick the person to deliver it. It will portray Obama as a failed leader who backs away when challenged and who doesn’t understand what it takes to create jobs and spur business investment.
Obama will highlight his opponent’s ties to the conservative tea party movement and its priorities of advocating deep spending cuts and opposing tax increases. He will say Republicans are obsessed with protecting millionaires’ tax cuts while the federal debt soars and working people struggle.
On several issues, voters will see a more distinct contrast between the nominees than in 2008. Even the most moderate Republican candidates have staked out more rigidly conservative views on immigration, taxes and spending than did Arizona Sen. McCain.
Democrats say Obama has little control over the two biggest impediments to his re-election: unemployment and congressional gridlock.
The jobless rate will stand at levels that have not led to a president’s re-election since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Largely because of that, Obama will run a much more negative campaign, his aides acknowledge, even if it threatens to demoralize some supporters who were inspired by his 2008 message of hope.
The tea party, one of the modern era’s most intriguing and effective political movements, will play its first role in a presidential race. After helping Republicans win huge victories in last year’s congressional elections, activists may push the Republican presidential contenders so far right that the eventual nominee will struggle to appeal to independents.
“It’s going to be extremely different, with much more hand-to-hand combat, from one foxhole to another, targeted to key states,” said Chris Lehane, who helped run Democrat Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Republican consultant Terry Holt agreed. “You can expect a very negative campaign,” he said. “In 2008, Barack Obama was peddling hope and change. Now he’s peddling fear and poverty.”
Obama and his aides reject that characterization, of course. They say the Republican candidates are under the tea party’s spell, noting that all of them said they would reject a deficit-reduction plan even if it included $10 in spending cuts for every dollar in new taxes.
Both parties agree that jobs will be the main issue. The White House predicts unemployment will hover around 9 percent for at least a year, a frighteningly high level for a president seeking a second term.
Republican lawmakers, who control the House of Representatives and have enough power in the Senate to use procedural maneuvers to prevent votes on legislation, have blocked Obama’s job proposals, mainly because they would raise taxes on the wealthy. The candidates, echoing their Republican colleagues in Congress, say new jobs will follow cuts in taxes, regulation and federal spending.
With the economy struggling and Obama hemmed in legislatively, his advisers sometimes say the election will be a choice between the president and his challenger, rather than a referendum on the administration’s performance.
“That’s a very genteel way of saying, ‘Were going to rip your face off,’ ” said Dan Schnur, a former aide to McCain and other Republicans, and now a politics professor at the University of Southern California. Obama has little choice but to try to portray the Republican alternative as worse than him, Schnur said.
Some Republican candidates would be tougher targets than others. Texas Gov. Rick Perry promotes his state’s significant job growth, leaving Democrats to grouse that he was a lucky bystander rather than the cause.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says his years in the private sector make him best suited to lead an economic expansion. But Obama’s allies have gathered details of jobs that were eliminated when Bain Capital, a takeover firm that Romney headed, restructured several companies.
Obama’s overall job-approval rating was 46 percent in an AP-GfK poll from October. Only 36 percent of adults approved of his handling of the economy, a worrisome number for any incumbent.
Yet 78 percent said he’s a likeable person, which forces Republicans to be careful. It’s possible that Obama will run a more cut-throat campaign than will his challenger. For now, anyway, Romney calls Obama “a nice guy” who doesn’t know how to lead.