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Five Months – But Who’s Counting?

President Obama campaigns in Virginia. Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images.

With a little more than five months to go until Election Day, Memorial Day about to signal the start of summer, and polls showing the presidential race very close, it’s a good time to think about what to keep an eye on as the campaign kicks into high gear.

Some of these markers are obvious — like economic indicators, the unemployment picture, the price of gas and housing. As long as those are negative, President Obama has to worry and former Gov. Mitt Romney has reason to hope.

The same goes for surveys showing most Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, or is off on the “wrong track,” a popular question with pollsters. The latest Wall Street Journal – NBC News poll reveals just one-third of respondents believe the United States is headed in the right direction.

How much money are the campaigns raising? And where are they spending that money for advertising “buys,” the paid messages that cost tens, perhaps even hundreds of millions of dollars to design and air? Which of the battleground states – the states that could swing either way in November – are drowning in a barrage of television and radio spots? (By the way, the co-director of that poll, Peter Hart, told the Wall Street Journal that there is such a small percentage of voters who are undecided in those states that, “Never before will so much money be spent by so many to persuade so few.”)

Perhaps the most valuable evidence will surface as we simply follow the candidates themselves and their surrogates. Where are they spending most of their time? What audiences are they addressing? And most important, what are they saying? Is President Obama waxing positive about the change he wants to bring in a second term, whether to the economy, the environment or education — or is he hammering Governor Romney’s role in layoffs that took place at companies while he headed Bain Capital? Is he explaining why he believes his health care reform plan is better than critics charge, assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t repeal it? Or is he avoiding the topic?

Is Romney sharing details of what he would do differently to help more Americans find jobs? Or is he mainly reciting his view of the failures of the Obama presidency? Is he answering questions about his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, or is he changing the subject?

We can tell something by the subjects the candidates are comfortable addressing, and by whether they are on the attack or laying out their vision for the future. Are they answering the questions you as a voter want answered, or is there a nagging lack of clarity about their position on an issue that matters to you?

It will be natural at times to want to turn away from the nonstop heavy artillery each side will be firing at the other on the airwaves, in print, through the web and social media. But underneath all that, there is a battle over the direction this country should take in the next four years. It’s a fight with real consequences.

We can wish campaigns would be shorter, but our often crazy electoral system is unlikely to change soon. My advice: take a deep breath and dive in. If you haven’t been paying much attention before, now is probably a good time to start.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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