GWEN IFILL: President Obama and Mitt Romney returned to the campaign trail in full force today, as the days dwindle down to Election Day.
After two weeks of sliding polls, foreign policy missteps and reported infighting among worried Republicans, Mitt Romney moved to get his campaign back on track today.
First up, a trip to Los Angeles to speak to a Hispanic business group.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Many Hispanics have sacrificed greatly to help build our country and our economy and to leave for their children a brighter future. Today, those sacrifices are being put at risk by a president who just can’t stop spending.
GWEN IFILL: Romney campaign officials said their candidate plans to reinforce his message by offering specifics that will show he is the better choice. Nationally, the race remains close.
But the president has recently gained an edge in key battleground states. He campaigned today in Ohio, where the most recent poll has him ahead by seven points.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Cincinnati!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: The president used the lever of incumbency to launch a two-pronged attack today, chastising China for subsidizing its auto industry.
BARACK OBAMA: These are subsidies that directly harm working men and women on the assembly lines in Ohio and Michigan and across the Midwest.
GWEN IFILL: And using his campaign platform to accuse Romney of being soft on trade to China.
BARACK OBAMA: Now, I understand my opponent has been running around Ohio claiming…
BARACK OBAMA: Don’t boo. Vote. Vote.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BARACK OBAMA: But he’s been running around Ohio claiming he’s going to roll up his sleeves and he’s going to take the fight to China.
BARACK OBAMA: Now, you can’t stand up to China when all you have done is sent them our jobs. You can talk a good game, but I like to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: The White House says more than 850,000 jobs in the state are connected to the auto industry. Romney has released a series of ads focused on the economy. He accused the president of being soft on trade.
MITT ROMNEY: My plan is to help the middle class. Trade has to work for America. That means crack down on cheaters like China.
Now, the president may think that announcing new trade lawsuits less than two months before the election will distract from his record.
But American businesses and workers struggling on an uneven playing field know better. If I had known that all it took to get him to take action was to run an ad citing his inaction on China’s cheating, I would have run one a long time ago.
GWEN IFILL: But, behind the scenes, the Romney campaign was also trying to beat back growing perceptions that theirs is a campaign in crisis.
In one widely read article in Politico, unnamed advisers and Romney supporters were quoted worrying aloud about Romney’s fortunes and especially about the role of senior adviser Stuart Stevens.
“A growing number of conservatives are blaming Stevens for advocating a campaign of caution,” Politico reported, “one that puts all the emphasis not on how good Romney could be, but how bad Obama is.”
Romney campaign officials, however, insist they are on course. The candidates’ travel schedules this week tell the story as the campaign enters its final 50 days. President Obama heads to Florida and Virginia, and Romney heads once again to Florida.
For the latest on the state of the race, we’re joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today,” and Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post.
Susan, we have been all consuming this daily diet of polls, especially from the battleground states. And presumably the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign have been doing the same thing. Do they interpret those numbers the same way we have been?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, I think that both campaigns see a small bump for President Obama coming out of the conventions, although it’s getting a little narrower, and that in these three most critical of battleground states — that would be Ohio, Florida and Virginia — you do see Obama having a slight advantage, a slightly bigger advantage than he had before.
And I think this is very worrisome to the Romney folks and quite encouraging to the Obama side.
GWEN IFILL: And what do the Romney people say about all that?
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Well, they say a couple of things.
One is they think that the bounce was overinterpreted that the president got after his convention. And they late last week expected these numbers to tighten up. And some have tightened up.
And I think their hope and expectation is that some of that will begin to happen in these battleground states, as well as nationally.
They also have a much different interpretation of last week’s events. I mean, their view is this was a much worse week for the president than it was for Mitt Romney, though Mitt Romney got a lot of criticism.
They look at two things, one, the Federal Reserve decision which they say ratifies the idea that this economy is still weak, still not coming around, needs a lot of help, and that the turmoil in the Middle East is a reflection on the president and his policies.
GWEN IFILL: There’s a new Pew poll out tonight, however, that shows that a lot of Americans don’t agree with that, that they actually thought the president handled the turmoil in the Middle East better last week than Mitt Romney did.
SUSAN PAGE: It’s certainly true that this has got the potential to be a big problem for the administration, if we have serious issues in the Middle East and a debate over the wisdom of President Obama’s policies toward the Arab spring and elsewhere.
On the other hand, I think what Americans as voters care most about when they look at foreign policy is the sense of leadership. Is this somebody who is competent and thoughtful and somebody who I can trust in a crisis I can’t predict today would come over the next four years?
And that’s why I think the fact that President — that Gov. Romney got out there pretty fast with very critical words as the violence was just starting in Cairo and Benghazi raised some questions about the tenor and tone of his remarks.
And it robbed him of the chance to really focus the debate on the wisdom of U.S. policy in the region.
GWEN IFILL: So, Gov. Romney today decides he’s going to get back on course. Or they claim — they say they have never been off course. But say they are.
And that of the things they’re going to do is be specific, because there’s now a hunger for specifics from the American people.
And so that’s why we probably saw both of them talking today about trade with China. But what does specificity — specificity, what does it really do in a case like this, 50 days out?
DAN BALZ: Well, one thing for Gov. Romney is to fill in some obvious gaps about his tax and budget policies.
He’s been asked questions repeatedly about how he would essentially make his mathematics, his arithmetic add up. And he hasn’t done that yet. And I think that, until he does that, he’s going to continue to get those kinds of questions.
If he hasn’t done it by the debates, he will certainly get it in the debates. And that’s a big stage for him to try to deal with those questions.
So, the other, I think, is the question of, what does a Romney presidency really look like? Is it a big and bold conservative agenda, a la what Paul Ryan and the House Republicans and many of the Republican governors have been doing since 2010, or is it something more modest and incremental?
And he hasn’t fully answered that question either.
GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t seem like these are both the same thing. You have to show the big picture question with the leadership issue and then the small-bore question with filling in the details. How do you do both of those?
SUSAN PAGE: And I think it shows the change in kind of the basic assumption of the race on the part of the Romney folks.
They had been running a race that would be a referendum on President Obama, in which President Obama would be found wanting and therefore his challenger would win.
And that has not I think been sufficient. It’s become more of a choice election. That reflects a success by the Obama folks in raising questions about Governor Romney.
So he is now forced to make a stronger case for himself. And the problem with coming out with specifics, whether it’s on economic policy or foreign policy, is that it gives more for your critics to pick at and criticize, as well as giving Americans a better sense of what you would do in office.
GWEN IFILL: So, we can assume that the people in Chicago, the Obama folks, are just — kicked back, happy about this, got it in the bag, right?
DAN BALZ: Not quite.
GWEN IFILL: No.
DAN BALZ: Although I think they feel — clearly, they feel better than they did before the conventions.
I think their belief is they have now a more solid lead, however small it may be, that it is a more solid lead than they had going into the conventions. I think they also think that this race will tighten further. They know the pitfalls ahead with the debates.
But they also have an enormous amount of confidence in their ground game compared to where they think the Romney campaign is.
GWEN IFILL: It’s also impossible now to pick up a newspaper article or read anything about politics right now and not hear about the grumbling, the infighting in the Romney campaign.
Is that what your reporting is showing as well, this Politico story we have all been consuming, that it’s that bad?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, this is extraordinary. This has never happened, except in all the other campaigns, in history.
GWEN IFILL: We have ever covered.
SUSAN PAGE: And when things get tough, you hear about the backbiting and second-guessing that goes in any every campaign, even in successful campaigns.
But when campaigns are going well, you don’t hear about it.
When I talk to voters and when we do our polling, nobody raises the issue of, gee, what strategist is really devising these ads for this campaign? They care about, what’s my measure of this candidate? What can he do for me and my family?
And one problem — I think — I agree with Dan that the Obama people feel a little better.
But the fact is, there continue to be questions and disappointment with the first term of President Obama that makes it a race, makes it a close contest, we expect, going forward.
GWEN IFILL: I get what you say, that people aren’t saying who is this Stuart Stevens guy and why is he ruining my life?
But if he is responsible for having been the person — or they are responsible for having presented this candidate to the American public at a time when he had the platform at his convention, and that didn’t proceed as they had hoped, is it significant that there is this disagreement about vision within the campaign?
DAN BALZ: Well, as Susan says, this does happen in every campaign.
I talked to Mark McKinnon, who was involved in both the Bush campaigns, and he talked about September 2000, which he says, we remember as black September.
DAN BALZ: We couldn’t do anything right. Everybody wanted us to be fired, and, et cetera, et cetera.
On the other hand, campaigns ultimately reflect the candidate. Strategists can do what they do. And some strategists are better than others. And strategists make mistakes and strategists can be brilliant.
But, ultimately, the issue of how Gov. Romney presents himself to the American people is something that Gov. Romney, in consultation with his advisers, has to find that sweet spot.
And so there can be criticism, as there always is in a campaign that’s under duress, about should you have done something that you didn’t do or did you do something that you shouldn’t have.
But, for voters, I think the real test is, does this campaign and this candidate convince me that I should be voting for him?
GWEN IFILL: And that’s why the stakes are going up for these debates?
SUSAN PAGE: Oh, yes, because it’s the final opportunity — barring some unexpected event outside everyone’s control, it’s the final opportunity for President Obama either to seal the deal with voters or for Gov. Romney to change the trajectory of the race as it’s on right now.
DAN BALZ: And the first debate, I think, is by far the most important debate.
If Gov. Romney has a really good night and the president doesn’t have such a good night, people will be talking about this race in a much different way right after that.
If he doesn’t have a particularly good night, the audience for those second and third presidential debates may not be as big. There’s not a lot of people left to persuade anyway. And so that first debate becomes more significant.
GWEN IFILL: No pressure, Jim Lehrer, right?
GWEN IFILL: Dan Balz, Susan Page, thank you so much.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.
DAN BALZ: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Late today, “Mother Jones” magazine released video secretly recorded at what they said was a Romney fundraising event.
In one clip, Romney said it’s not his job to win over the 47 percent of voters who back the president, because they don’t pay taxes and are — quote — “dependent on government.” The Obama campaign denounced the remarks as shocking.