Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Will Voters Look Forward or Back?

"Forward." That is Barack Obama's new campaign slogan, and it's another way of saying, "Don't look back, don't judge me on my record, don't think about the last four years. Think about the next four and who you want running the country, me or Mitt."

As Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt summed up this argument: "This election, like all other elections, is going to be a choice between two candidates, two records and two visions for the country."

If Republican Mitt Romney had a one-word slogan, it would be exactly the opposite: "Backward." In November, he is telling voters, don't make a choice between two candidates; render a judgment about one of them. And Obama is a failure who does not deserve a second term.

"What this election is about," Romney said in a recent statement, "is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty."

Most incumbents try to run on some version of the slogan, "You never had it so good," but Obama clearly cannot do that. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 17 percent describe the economy in positive terms. In an average of all polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, one out of three voters say the country is headed in the right direction; three out of five say it's moving down the wrong track. "The more Obama takes the blame" for the economy, says ABC pollster Gary Langer, "the greater his risk."

When voters compare the president to his rival, however, the numbers shift dramatically. On the question of who has the "the better personal character to serve as president," voters prefer Obama over Romney 52 percent to 38 percent. And while 91 percent of Obama supporters express enthusiasm for their candidate, Romney's rate is 73 percent.

Those results lead to the second half of Obama's strategy. Don't just look forward, he's saying, look at personal qualities more than policies. "The campaign," Democratic strategist Chris Lehane told Politico, "is all about, 'Who does the country trust?'"

Team Romney, of course, is looking at the same polling results and aiming directly at the main weakness Obama is trying to obscure -- the anemic economic recovery. The Washington Post sums up its own poll: "It is a rearview-mirror assessment that could hurt Obama's chances for a second term." Adds Romney: "President Obama refuses to accept moral responsibility for his failed policies."

These warring strategies are playing out in the first big ad buys of the campaign season. Both sides are going negative right away. This is midnight in America, not morning, they seem to be saying -- and both are offering stale platitudes when it comes to fixing the economy. This year is shaping up like an old-fashioned duel: Shoot the other guy before he shoots you.

Team Obama is focusing on the record of Bain Capital, the private equity firm run by Romney. One ad features workers who lost their jobs at a steel mill bought -- and eventually closed -- by Bain. "Those guys were all rich," one disgruntled employee says. "They all had more money than they will ever spend. Yet they didn't have the money to take care of the very people who made the money for them." Another adds: "Bain Capital walked away with a lot of money that they made off of this plant. We view Mitt Romney as a job destroyer."

Team Romney has a harder time, it admits, because voters know and like Obama. In a new ad made by Crossroads GPS, a super PAC run by ex-Romney aides, the fictional main character is a middle-aged mom with two kids who supported Obama four years ago but is now disillusioned. The tone is sadness and regret, rather than anger and revenge, as images of the woman's grown kids flash on the screen. "They can't find jobs to get their careers started, and I can't afford to retire," she laments. "And now we're living together again. ... I had so many hopes."

The battle lines for the fall campaign have now been drawn. Obama's message: Don't trust him with your future. Romney's message: Blame him for your past.

Will voters see the election as a choice or a judgment? Will they care more about their frustration with Obama or their fear of Romney? Will they see the glass as half full or half empty? Their answers will decide the next president.

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