It’s no surprise that the economy is expected to take center stage in this year’s presidential election. Unemployment is up, job creation is down, and the malaise we’ve dubbed an “economic recovery” is now in it’s third year. Incumbency is difficult in downturn economies, so President Obama will have to make a compelling case why he deserves more time to make good on promises given in 2008.

A recent poll from Fox News shows only 42% of likely voters approve of the way Obama has handled the economy. The problem, though, is that only 44% trust that Mitt Romney is equal to the task. This suggests that either Romney has not built a case that his private sector experience makes him the clear choice on the economy or that he hasn't effectively sniped Obama’s three-year record of anemic economic growth.

Another issue likely to intensify in months to come is immigration. With nine out of ten Latinos supporting the Dream Act, expect Democrats will nenew an effort to brand it as a part of their national platform.

Obama’s 2008 victory was made partly possible by Latino voters in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida. To keep his job, the president must win in those states, especially in Florida.  A problem, however, is that Romney’s campaign thinks a strong and steady economic message to Latinos will sooth their anxieties about hard line immigration rhetoric. This is risky. The Romney campaign says they need to capture at least 38% of the Latino vote to win in November; thus, Obama’s lead over Romney among Latinos 63% to 28% is a real problem.

The Romney/Ryan ticket might have to walk an inevitable tightrope between a pragmatic immigration policy and appeasing a fringe-right that's quick to label as amnesty any policy that doesn’t enforce immediate deportation. Making the issue even murkier is a segment of undocumented immigrants - around 1.5 million people - brought to the U.S. as children.  What do we do with them? 

The Dream Act, predicated on the axiom that people should not be punished for choices they didn’t or couldn’t make, attempts to address these “dreamers” by removing the specter of deportation while also providing them an opportunity to be a productive part of American society.

Republican leaders point to polls indicating that immigration reform, as the Hispanic community is concerned, places fourth among top issues like the economy, healthcare, and education. What the polls don’t indicate is that immigration is a gateway issue for Latinos.

Both parties claim a better approach to improving the economy, healthcare, and education. But just as the salesman whose pitch personally insults his customer’s family, Republicans should also be concerned that their ideas might not get a full hearing as long as Republicans continue to use harsh immigration rhetoric.

Finally, some pundits believe that Romney’s likability could be a problem. Likability for some, unfortunately, has more to do with presentation than character. It’s about personality and persona, who you are and what you project.

Many are asking, what role does likability play in a presidential election? Historical analysis of past elections by the Hoover Institute suggests that personal likability has little predictive value on presidential elections. Jimmy Carter had the highest likability value of any president from 1952 to 2000, but lost to Ronald Reagan because his job approval numbers hovered the ocean floor.

But wasn’t Reagan a charismatic candidate? Not according to Analyst Morris Fiorina who argued the Ronald Reagan of 1980 was not the same Reagan of 1984 or the Reagan mourned by the nation in 2004. In 1980, his likability was the lowest of all the Republican candidates. Americans saw him as uninformed, reckless, and prone to gaffes.

Despite being a peach of a guy personally, Carter’s job performance record outweighed his likability rating. There is no guarantee that Obama’s likability - despite a recent convention bounce for Romney - gives him an edge on November 6.

To win, Romney needs to convince the public that he’s the man to grow the economy and to do what George W. Bush couldn’t, to unify his party behind a pragmatic approach to immigration reform.

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