WASHINGTON — He's a smug, Harvard-trained elitist who doesn't get how regular Americans are struggling these days. More extreme than he lets on, he's keeping his true agenda hidden until after Election Day. He's clueless about fixing the economy, over his head on foreign policy. Who is he?
Your answer will help decide the next president.
Is it Barack Obama, as seen by Mitt Romney? Or Romney, the way Obama depicts him? For all their liberal versus conservative differences, when the two presidential contenders describe each other, they sound like they're naming the same flawed guy. Or mirror images of that guy.
Will voters prefer the man waving with his left hand or his right?
Blame it on two cautious candidates with more traits in common than their disparate early biographies would suggest.
No Drama Obama is panned as professorial and aloof. Romney is deemed boring when he's not being awkward.
Distrusted as too moderate within his own party, each is demonized as a radical by the other side. They don't get specific about the tough stuff, like budget cuts or taxes, that would invite more precisely calibrated negative ads.
Add a presidential contest buried beneath a single issue, the economy, and original lines of attack are scarce. The candidates take jabs anyway.
"They're trying to define each other. That's what it's all about," said Ken Duberstein, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. "They're throwing out different characterizations to see which one resonates."
With quickie Internet videos and instant comebacks via Twitter, "the attack and counterattack is happening in real time," said political communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson. "Campaigns are working to make sure nothing is missed."
Attacks big or small get batted back, even if the response amounts to "I know you are, what am I?"
Democrats accuse Republicans of a "war on women," Romney's campaign notes rising female unemployment during the Obama years.1 comment on this story
The Obama camp jokes about Romney's dog riding on the roof of the family car; Republicans respond that Obama ate dog meat as a boy in Indonesia.
Both candidates are slammed as "out of touch" with ordinary Americans.
Obama: Cloistered in the White House. Hangs out with celebrities, acting "cool." Doesn't understand the real world because "he spent too much time at Harvard," according to Romney, who earned two Harvard degrees himself.
Romney: Grew up wealthy, with a governor for a father. Worth $200 million or more. He's the kind of guy who had a Swiss bank account and wants a car elevator for his beach house, the Democrats note.