WASHINGTON — As the White House challenger, Mitt Romney can seize on the attention that accompanies the selection of a running mate. When the London Olympics get under way, he can use that spotlight to play up his leadership of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
His candidacy also is benefiting from the fundraising power of outside GOP-aligned political groups that are spending millions on TV ads to promote him and undercut President Barack Obama. The weak economic recovery offers the chance for Romney to make inroads among unhappy voters.
Not all is rosy, however, for the former Massachusetts governor.
Health care is the last thing Romney wants to talk about. As he appeals to independent voters, he has to fend off charges that by moving to the middle, he's changing core positions for political purposes.
Picking a vice president: It's one of the biggest decisions Romney will make during the campaign and will shed light on Romney's judgment at a time when voters are just getting to know him. Announcing the decision will ensure that he can dominate headlines, for a few days at least, in the middle of an otherwise slow summer, and could provide a fundraising boost. With a running mate in place, Romney will gain a new top surrogate who is likely to act in the traditional role of a vice presidential nominee: attacking the top of the other ticket — Obama in this case.
The Olympics: The 2012 Games in London are made for Romney as he looks to showcase one of his signature achievements, his work running the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The event was mired in scandal before Utah leaders hired Romney to try and dig them out of the mess. Romney's campaign so far has refrained from introducing to the general electorate his record as steward of the Olympics, but aides have planned extensively for the August games. Look for Romney do interviews with major media outlets and attend the opening ceremonies as well as a few events.
Super political action committees: Romney has exceeded fundraising expectations, and he's also getting lots of help from wealthy Republican donors and some Supreme Court decisions. The new rules allow outside groups to spend millions — individuals don't have the same $2,500 limit that's placed on the official campaign — to run TV ads. Super PACs can't coordinate with the campaign, but they can coordinate with each other, and they've spent millions on the air to counter Obama's onslaught of TV ads.
The Republican National Convention: The spotlight will be on Tampa, Fla., at the end of August, where the Republican challenger will accept the party's nomination and his running mate with make a national debut. Numerous rising stars within the Republican Party will get prime speaking slots. At a time when Democrats control the White House and Senate, Romney and the Republican Party will command attention for a full week.
Health care: It's the last thing Romney wants to talk about. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the key part of Obama's health care law — the requirement that all in the U.S. carry health insurance — is constitutional under the power Congress has to levy taxes. Romney enacted a similar mandate in Massachusetts when he was governor, calling the requirement a penalty instead of a tax. After the Supreme Court decision, a senior Romney adviser appeared on MSNBC and said Romney didn't believe either mandate was a tax; the candidate reversed that position just a few days later, telling CBS that Obama's mandate is a tax. The contradictions weaken Romney's ability to attack Obama on health care, potentially a critical campaign issue.
Moving to the middle: After a brutal primary, Romney is working to appeal to independent, swing and other voters he'll need to beat Obama. But moving to the middle is a dangerous endeavor for a politician who's been accused of changing his core positions to accommodate political realities. An example: immigration. After months of using the issue to bloody his primary opponents, Romney has softened his rhetoric and tone in a bid to attract Hispanic voters. But he's been careful to say little about what he would do as president and was hesitant to take a stand when the Supreme Court ruled parts of Arizona's harsh immigration enforcement law unconstitutional.
Staying in the spotlight: It's always a problem for a challenger running against an incumbent president: attention. Without the bully pulpit the presidency allows, staying in the spotlight through the Olympic Games and long summer vacations will be challenging for a candidate who still needs to introduce himself to voters. Romney will have some high-profile opportunities to get noticed, particularly his selection of a vice president. But Obama still has an edge.
Defining himself before Obama does: Romney still isn't well known to most voters. In a May Associated Press-GfK poll, 44 percent of adults felt they had "a good idea of what policies Mitt Romney would pursue if elected president," compared with 67 percent who said they had a good idea of the policies Obama would pursue. That gives Obama a chance to define Romney for voters before Romney can define himself. Democrats have been hammering Romney for once having a Swiss bank account and for keeping investments in offshore tax havens.
Associated Press deputy polling director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.