Rupert Cornwell: Bad news on jobs is good news for Romney

Out of America: A shrinking jobs market hands the Republican candidate a crucial weapon against Obama

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It's been a terrific week for Mitt Romney. On Tuesday he won the Republican primary in Texas, giving him the 1,144 delegates that mathematically assure him of his party's presidential nomination at the Tampa convention in late August. Not that the destination of the prize has been in any doubt for a couple of months now. Still, confirmation never hurts.

Then came polls suggesting Romney was gaining ground among independent and, especially, women voters, two categories that contributed mightily to Barack Obama's sweeping win in 2008. And finally – classic example of the bad news that's good news in politics – the Labor Department reported some miserable employment figures, showing that the economy added just 69,000 jobs in May, and that the number of new jobs created in March and April was 49,000 lower than initially reported.

For America (and Obama) these are grim tidings, suggesting the early-year optimism that recovery was taking hold was misplaced, and that the country could be slipping into part two of a double-dip recession. But for the Republican aspiring to Obama's own job, it is further grist to his central argument: that this is now Obama's economy, not George W Bush's economy. A Democratic president has had three and a half years to fix things, but has signally failed to do so.

And intangibles may be even more important. Suddenly the Republican primary season, and those demeaning set-tos with the likes of Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, seem a lifetime ago. With his Rushmore-sculpted looks, Romney has always had the air of a president. Now, Americans are coming to realise, he has a fair shot of actually becoming one.

He's raising as much money as Obama. In Ann Romney, he has a campaign asset to match Michelle Obama. Even Bill Clinton grudgingly agrees that Romney is a credible candidate. "A man who's been governor [of Massachusetts] and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold," the former president told CNN the other night. So much for the Obama campaign's broadsides against the evils of Bain Capital.

His choice of running mate, the one presidential-size decision he must make before possibly assuming the office, should do Romney further good. It has been accurately noted that the potential vice-presidential field is far stronger than the presidential one ever was. For Santorum, Bachmann and Gingrich, read Jeb Bush, Rob Portman, Mitch Daniel and Chris Christie, to name but four people being touted. All have served as senators, governors or high government officials; all, for varying reasons, took a pass on a presidential bid in 2012, despite pressure (intense in the case of Christie) from party elders to run.

Admittedly, none has the wow factor that Sarah Palin briefly brought to the ticket in 2008. But the last thing Republicans want is a repeat of four years ago, when Palin's glaring lack of qualification was a factor in John McCain's defeat. My 2012 quartet may all be white, male and (with the exception of Christie) rather boring. Nor do people vote for vice-president – although Jeb Bush would surely improve Republican chances in the vital swing state of Florida, where he was a popular governor between 1999 and 2007. But any one of them would reinforce the image of steadiness and economic competence that is key to a Romney victory in November.

Romney still has more than two months to make this particular choice. But more good news could come much sooner. On Tuesday, the normally placid state of Wisconsin votes in a rare and bitterly contested gubernatorial recall election – in other words, whether to sack the sitting Republican governor Scott Walker, and replace him with a Democrat, Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in 2010.

Walker got into his predicament by slashing benefits and bargaining rights of Wisconsin public employees, in order to reduce the state's massive budget deficit. The battle has turned into a showdown between a Republican reformer and the Democrat-run unions that has divided workplaces, families and even marriages. But polls now put Walker narrowly ahead. If he wins on Tuesday, in another swing state the party is seeking to win for the first time since 1984, it will be taken as clear sign that the national economic mood is running the Republicans' – and Mitt Romney's – way.

Until now, Obama has focused his attacks on Romney's record at Bain, portraying his opponent as a vulture feeding on the cadavers of sacked workers at companies acquired by Bain, concerned only with increasing profits for himself and his investors. But, in the US, this is a dangerous tactic; accusations of being "anti-capitalist" have a sting they don't carry in other countries. And its record in presidential elections is patchy at best. Jimmy Carter played the same card against Ronald Reagan and lost; so did Al Gore against George Bush, also presented as a spoilt child of capitalism.

Now Democrats are switching to Romney's performance as governor of Massachusetts, charging that he created few jobs and was prisoner of the right. But this too is tricky terrain. As a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state, Romney had to govern from the centre. During the primaries he disowned that past, describing himself as "severely conservative". Who knows? Thus even his reputation as a "flip-flopper" has an advantage; rightly or wrongly not a few believe Romney is a moderate, or at least a results-oriented pragmatist unshackled by ideology. This belief will do him no harm among centrist voters who could decide the election.

One terrific week, of course, does not a campaign make. Obama has many things going for him. He should out-debate the stiff and awkward Romney (though then again, John Kerry was clear winner of the 2004 debates, and much good it did him). He leads handsomely among Latinos and other minorities. His personal approval ratings are respectable, despite the sagging economy; people still like him. But incumbents everywhere are struggling, and there is no reason America should be different. Here too the challenger is on the up. This election will be close indeed.

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