PHILADELPHIA — For months, Republicans fighting for their party's nomination have dominated the political discussion with a grim narrative of American decline: a sluggish economy worsened by a Democratic president bent on creating a European-style social-welfare state on this side of the Atlantic, with a naive foreign policy and an animus toward traditional values.
But while Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul — the last four Republicans standing in the race for the White House — continue pushing one another to the right in a quest to lock down the conservative base and the win, President Barack Obama has crept back into his strongest position in months.
Several of the latest polls show Obama's job-approval rating at the crucial 50 percent benchmark and give him leads in head-to-head matchups with his likely GOP opponents.
Jobs have grown for several consecutive months, consumer confidence is up, and so is the stock market. Even General Motors Co., rescued by a much-criticized government bailout, is turning a profit and adding shifts. At the end of the past week, Obama won a rare victory in Congress as Republicans agreed to an extension of a payroll-tax cut.
On the foreign-policy front, the war in Afghanistan is winding down and Obama can claim credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and the thinning of the ranks of al-Qaida leadership.
To be sure, Obama's standing remains precarious, with fallout from Europe's financial crisis and the possibility of armed confrontation between Israel and Iran over Iranian nuclear ambitions just two of the variables that could change things instantly. And at some point, Republicans will unite around a nominee.
Yet the chief dynamic of the 2012 campaign — an incumbent facing one of the worst re-election environments in history — may have to be reconsidered, at least for now, analysts and strategists say.
"It's not a close call — there's been a dramatic movement up," argued Democratic consultant Saul Shorr. "People are more optimistic about the economy, and that's happening at the same time they're watching a circus that is disconnected from their lives on the Republican side — 'The Three Stooges.' "
Indeed, as the GOP battle drags on, most national polls find negative views of all the candidates increasing. (It's a common result, and the purpose, of negative ads and campaign contrasts.) Romney's favorable rating, in particular, has dropped sharply among the independent and moderate voters important to winning general elections.
While the Republicans are on the main stage, Obama's re-election campaign has been busy. It has raised more than $150 million and spent a little less than half that building the mechanisms of mobilization that could turn a close election, starting with a massive database of persuadable voters.
Obama has also grabbed opportunities to reassure key elements of the Democratic base. He recently refused permission for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, cheering environmentalists; pushed for more federal student loans and lower college tuition, issues popular with the young voters who were vital to his 2008 election; and has taken a more confrontational approach toward GOP leaders in Congress.
More broadly, Obama has laid out a core "fairness" message on the economy, aimed at the middle class, that calls for increased taxes on the wealthy. Advisers believe the message will resonate beyond the Democratic base, appealing to independents and working-class voters who have supported Republicans.
The president started with this populist theme in several big speeches last year, hit it hard in his January State of the Union address, and has stayed on it.
"We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it," Obama said in the State of the Union. "When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that, when I get a tax break I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference — like a senior on a fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet. ... Americans know that's not right."
The nation can endure only if there is a sense of "shared responsibility," Obama argued.
Republicans frame Obama's tack as "class warfare," and it may come to be seen that way by a majority of Americans. Populist appeals traditionally have had limited success in U.S. politics.
In fact, statistical modeling of presidential elections has found that fundamental economic indicators such as the rates of unemployment, inflation, and economic growth determine the fates of incumbents — and that trend lines are more important than a "magic" number for any of the factors.
comments on this story
The populist message "may help, but I don't think voters are willing to listen unless they feel things are changing for the better," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "When the wind is at your back, a fly ball carries out to right field. ... The key is what the economy does in the next several months. If January was a blip and things turn south again, even an embattled Republican nominee will look a lot better."
(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services