A medium-sized thunderbolt has crashed down amid the somewhat torpid early stages of the presidential campaign. A New York Times/CBS poll of registered voters, released Wednesday, shows President Obama and the assured Republican nominee Mitt Romney running neck and neck, at 46 percent each.
Only last month the same poll was showing Obama with a modest lead, as Romney slugged his way through the last round of primaries. The dead-heat news demolishes the house wisdom of the political commentariat, which was that his battles with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for the right-wing vote in the contest for the Republican nomination had damaged Romney's standing with the broad mass of independents who will actually decide the outcome of the election next November and that it would take him some months to restore his mainstream credibility.
The poll suggests that people were not too bothered by Romney's gyrations. Now that Romney is the assured nominee, awaiting only the formality of coronation at the party convention in Tampa, Fla., at the end of the summer, they're viewing him in exactly the contours that so dismayed his right-wing foes: as a mainstream Republican candidate.
Indeed the poll shows that conservative Republicans — Tea Partiers and Evangelicals — still nourish deep suspicions of the Mormon millionaire. As the pollsters report: 33 percent say they will enthusiastically support Romney if he is the nominee, compared to 28 percent in January and 18 percent last October. Still, more have reservations about him (40 percent) than enthusiastically back him. If Evangelicals — to whom Mormonism is akin to Satan worship — decide to sit the election out, that could be a problem for Romney.
The Obama campaign had no doubt calculated that Romney would reposition himself towards what passes for the "center" of the American political spectrum, but they thought they had time to lengthen Obama's lead. No longer.
The poll was conducted amid a slanging match between Ann Romney - Mrs. Mitt — and a Democratic talking head — Hilary Rosen — who ridiculed Mitt Romney saying he relied on Ann to keep him abreast of women's concerns when "his wife has actually never worked a day in her life."
Ann Romney blasted away with her tweet gun. "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."
Terror-stricken at the folly of ridiculing a mother of five, furthermore one who has battled multiple sclerosis, Democrats rose as one to vilify Rosen's characterization. That may have affected the poll.
The all-too-visible national economic stagnation is a more serious long-term factor for the White House. So far as America's top corporations are concerned, life looks good. They're flush with cash and have successfully recalibrated after the 2008 crash, laying off workers and shifting more production overseas.
But small town America is hurting. The jobs aren't coming back; the customers have no money. If the economy doesn't improve, Romney could soon turn that dead-heat into a lead.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.