The general election unofficially began nearly a month ago, and so far President Obama is winning.
This has nothing to do with poll numbers. Sure, Obama enjoys a statistically insignificant 3.7 percent edge over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, and several analyses give the president a bigger advantage when it comes to the Electoral College. But every honest observer knows that polling will only become meaningful in the fall.
It's been widely agreed that given Obama's vulnerabilities, Romney's chances of winning hinge on his ability to make the election a referendum on Obama's record. And here is where Romney is failing. His campaign is allowing the president to change the subject.
Though the general election won't begin in earnest until September, after both Romney and Obama have formally accepted their respective parties' nominations, it effectively began when Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign on April 10.
Since that time, three stories have dominated the political news cycle. The first came when Hilary Rosen, a Democratic operative, said Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life." The next came when the Romney campaign promoted a Daily Caller story recounting that Obama had eaten dog as a child in Indonesia. The most recent came as Obama decided to spike the football before the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing, releasing an ad suggesting Romney wouldn't have made the same call.
In all of these cases, the Romney campaign has taken the bait, reacting to whatever Team Obama has decided to make an issue.
The hoopla surrounding Rosen came as a response to the Democrats' "War on Women" campaign, begun when conservatives opposed the administration's policy of forcing religious institutions to purchase drugs to which they had moral objections. The Romney campaign is still on the defensive about the gender issue, having releasing a statement on Wednesday blasting Obama's economic record on working women.
Conservatives have had a lot of fun with the story about Obama having eaten dog, but it only comes in response to a story about Romney having put his dog on the roof for a family road trip, which the Obama campaign highlighted to make Romney seem callous.
As for the bin Laden killing, when Romney said "even Jimmy Carter" would have ordered the raid, it made him seem very petty. It made it much easier for the Obama campaign to continue to exploit it as a political issue.
While these stories continued to dominate the political headlines, negative economic news poured in. Just in the past week, the Commerce Department reported that the pace of economic growth slowed to an anemic 2.2 percent in the first quarter and payroll processor ADP reported the private sector added just 119,000 jobs in April, far lower than expectations. The Labor Department releases its monthly report Friday.
Meanwhile, total U.S. debt approached $15.7 trillion and Obama still stubbornly refuses to lay out a long-term plan to put the nation on a sustainable fiscal course.
If the campaign is about bin Laden, identity politics and silly controversies about dogs, an Obama victory is a lot more likely. To seize control of the campaign, instead of merely being reactive, Romney has to put Obama on the defensive about his own record.
Philip Klein is senior editorial writer for The Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.