(photo: Gage Skidmore)

Last week in this space, I mentioned:

The frightening upshot of Mitt Romney’s clear path to the Republican nomination for the White House is that it might as well be the fall of 2012 right now.

Making full use of their respective, nearly limitless warchests, both the Romney and Obama campaigns will spend the next ten months carpet-bombing each other in the media in hopes of framing the presidential race in their favor.

Recognizing that the general election campaign was indeed about to begin, however mind-numbingly early, both sides spent a good chunk of last week test-driving their respective spins–specifically, with regard to Romney’s corporate-vampire past.  On Wednesday, Romney took this tack (via TPM):

QUESTIONER: Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?

ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you have opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.

Here, Mitt is betting on a long-recognized characteristic that has benefited Republicans: working-class voters can be coaxed into sympathy for policies that favor the wealthy because they personally aspire to be (or, at least, idly wish they were) wealthy themselves.

Obviously, Team Obama’s riposte sought to push a much different frame:

Our economic crisis and endemic income inequality were caused in large part by a few who put profits over people. Taking advantage of an uneven playing field, where there was one rulebook for those at the top and another for everyone else, Mitt Romney and his friends made money hand over fist while working families lost their grip on the middle-class lifestyle they earned.

Between now and November the American people will decide whether to respond to this crisis by electing a corporate raider who profited from – and promises to restore – the conditions that caused it

Underneath this verbiage aimed at creating or destroying sympathy for the GOP economic agenda, there will be a more basic conflict at play: how good or bad the economy actually is as 2012 progresses, and whether voters think Romney has any real ability to make things better.

President Obama’s ability to influence the former is almost over, leaving the latter as the major issue to fight about.  An email from Obama strategist David Axelrod to Greg Sargent provides an interesting hint about this:

Last week [Romney] said “productivity equals income.”

But the point is, it hasn’t for the typical American worker over the last three decades, and, particularly, over the last decade.

This is the central challenge of our time, and he doesn’t get it.

That’s a surprisingly wonky way to define a “central challenge” for a political campaign, but there’s a reason for it.  The underlying message from Romney’s side is going to be, you may not like me or even think I’m ethical, but I know how the world of money works — and I can use that knowledge to get the economy going again.

Judging from Axelrod’s email, Team Obama has a different take.  They think Romney’s flat, obviously scripted rhetoric shows (and, more importantly, will continue to show voters) that he doesn’t really get how the economy works… which opens the door for all the suspicions about only being interested in enriching himself through a rigged system.

In short, Axelrod et al. think they can win the race by betting on Romney to expose himself as not much brighter than Rick Perry or Sarah Palin.  Might not be a bad plan.