(photo: Gage Skidmore)

You know this election is deeply surreal when pollster Pat Caddell — who long ago cashed in his credibility from Jimmy Carter’s surprising victory in 1976 to become a Fox News Democrat — tosses aside his poor-man’s-Dick-Morris schtick for a moment and makes sense:

… if the president is at 50% approval, hundreds of millions of dollars raised and spent by Republican and conservative consultants and organizations have failed….

I watched Romney yesterday, I swear to God, there is no urgency to this man…. [If] we’re heading for a major crisis [and] you see it coming, [you say,] ‘Here are the three or four things that I’m going to do, we must make a change.’ [But] he has no message other than ‘I’d like to win and by the way I have a secret formula.’ He may still win with this, but not if Obama’s at 50% approval.

Their strategists from the beginning have decided — I just, you know can’t say enough bad things about them. They are incompetent, that believe that you can sit and election will automatically come to you.

This was very similar to what I said last week about if Romney had modeled his campaign message on Bill Clinton in 1992 rather than Ronald Reagan in 1980. (You might say Romney couldn’t pull off a convincing Clinton imitation, but then again, is anyone buying him as Reagan?)

But in a way, I can forgive Mitt Romney’s campaign strategists for the approach they chose. If my candidate was as transparently insincere and awkward as Romney, I might be tempted to try making the election a referendum on the other guy, too.

And really, it’s understandable how they thought it might work. Put yourself in their shoes — first of all, maybe as a Republican, you dismiss 2008 as a fluke based on a combined reaction to Bush’s unpopularity and Obama’s fresh-faced charisma.

And then you think back to the Rovian glory days of 2004, when the GOP gleefully redefined John Kerry (and his numerous Purple Hearts from battle in Vietnam) into a limp-wristed weakling who couldn’t protect America nearly as well as the draft-dodging, My Pet Goat-reading George Bush. With a stagnant economy and (literally) untold millions of Citizens United-fueled advertising dollars to help them, why shouldn’t Team Romney have believed that they could redefine Obama the same way?

I have to admit, I was as surprised as anyone to see the results from CNN’s latest poll showing that even now, four years later, most people blame our economic problems on Dubya & Co. rather than the current president.

And remember those awful, dishonest welfare ads Romney was putting on TV?  Well, shortly after they first appeared, I noted that you could tell what campaign tactics were working or not by ignoring the respective sides’ words and watching their actions… and now, a month later, those commercials seem to have had little impact, even without the Obama re-election squad having to make any extraordinary effort to rebut them.  They apparently just evaporated because viewers ultimately didn’t believe them.

I mean, really? The American electorate can be that discerning?  I’m not sure whether it’s Karl Rove or H.L. Mencken who’s being proven wrong here.