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Memo to Romney: It's not just the economy, stupid

Among Republicans, it is an article of faith that high unemployment and voter disapproval of President Barack Obama's handling of the economy should put Mitt Romney in the White House. Unfortunately, Republicans fail to grasp that challengers must offer a compelling alternative to unseat an incumbent. And other issues matter more to voters than party leaders care to recognize.

Mr. Romney's platform lays out detailed proposals to improve U.S. competitiveness, develop more domestic energy, streamline regulations and lower health care costs, but those are too complex to capture voter attention.

On the stump, it's the usual Republican message — lower taxes, deregulation and free trade. In Ronald Reagan's time, that was a winning strategy, but the country has changed.

African-Americans and Hispanics are a growing share of registered voters. Many have a strong allegiance to progressive values, and they are critical to the outcome in some swing states. Hispanics are frightened by many Republicans' views on immigration.

Republican opposition to abortion and guaranteed free access to women's healthcare services is easily cast by liberal talk show personalities as a Republican war on women.

According to most polls, Mr. Obama is winning the popular vote by a small margin but more importantly, he is ahead in seven of eight battleground states still up for grabs.

Real Clear Politics compilation of the various polls has Mr. Obama ahead in 19 states and the District of Columbia — together those would deliver 247 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Governor Romney is ahead in 23 states, garnering 191 electoral votes.

That leaves Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia to determine the election. President Obama leads in all those states except North Carolina, where Mr. Romney's margin is about 1 percent

If Mr. Romney delivers a more convincing economic message and reassures seniors he will shore up Social Security and Medicare in ways that do not threaten them, he should snag the close states. In Florida, Iowa and North Carolina, Mr. Obama currently enjoys a margin of less than 2 percent, and securing those would give Mr. Romney 241 electoral votes.

Of the remaining states, victories in Virginia and Ohio with 13 and 18 electoral votes respectively put him over the top, and if he loses one of those, it is unlikely he could win the election.

In Virginia and Ohio, unemployment is well below the national average, and important elements of Republicanism — limited government, conservative family values and ambivalence toward unions — don't resonate as well as in places like North Carolina or Iowa.

In Virginia, the numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters has swelled in recent years, in part thanks to effective Democratic Party get-out-the vote-campaigns. It is the home of many federal employees, contractors and high tech businesses. And, so far Mr. Romney has proven no better than 2008 GOP nominee John McCain in framing a message attractive to the Old Dominion.

Although a strongly Republican state in congressional races, Ohio has sided with the winner in the last 12 presidential elections. It has a well diversified economy and is recovering better from the recession than most parts of the country. Mr. Romney's message that Mr. Obama has failed does not sell quite as well as in other places.

More importantly, Ohio is still a strong manufacturing state, with substantial union membership. Many folks working in its successful service activities have parents, siblings or schoolmates with union affiliation.

Sympathy toward collective bargaining runs deep in Buckeye culture. That is why Gov.John R. Kasich's bid to curb public employee unions backfired, and the legacy of that confrontation is a burden to Mr. Romney.

Running against Mr. Obama's record on the economy will carry Mr. Romney only so far.

Republican baggage on women's issues, immigration and unions and its harsh view of government and regulation hurt him where it counts the most — Virginia and Ohio, the states that will pick the next president. Mr. Romney had better wake up and reassure voters on these issues or he simply can't win in November.

Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, is a widely published columnist. His email is Twitter: @pmorici1.

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