High unemployment, anemic growth, defections in key groups such as independents and Hispanics, and unpopular policies are among the reasons President Obama is unlikely to win re-election. But likely to lose is far from certain to lose. If Republicans make enough unforced errors, Mr. Obama could win.
The first such mistake would be forgetting that the target voters are those ready to swing away from Mr. Obama (independents, Hispanics, college educated and young voters) and those whose opposition to Mr. Obama has deepened since 2008 (seniors and working-class voters).
These voters gave the GOP a big win in the 2010 midterm. They are deeply concerned about the economy, jobs, spending, deficits and health care. Many still like Mr. Obama personally but disapprove of his handling of the issues. They are not GOP primary voters, but they are watching the contest. The Republican Party will find it more difficult to gain their support if its nominee adopts a tone that's harshly negative and personally anti-Obama.
The GOP nominee should fiercely challenge Mr. Obama's policies, actions and leadership using the president's own words, but should stay away from questioning his motives, patriotism or character. He will do this to his GOP opponent to try to draw Republicans into the mud pit. They should avoid it.
It won't be easy. Mr. Obama can't win re-election by trumpeting his achievements. And he has decided against offering a bold agenda for a second term: That was evident in his State of the Union emphasis on high-speed rail, high-speed Internet and "countless" green jobs.
Instead, backed by a brutally efficient opposition research unit, the president will use focus-group tested lines of attack to disqualify the Republican nominee by questioning his or her values, intentions and intelligence.
Republicans should avoid giving him mistakes to pounce on and should stand up to this withering assault, always looking for ways to turn it back on Mr. Obama and his record. The GOP candidate must express disappointment and regret, not disgust and anger, especially in the debates. Ronald Reagan's cheery retorts to Jimmy Carter's often-petty attacks are a good model. Any day that isn't a referendum on the Obama presidency should be considered wasted.
Republicans also must not confuse the tea party movement with the larger, more important tea party sentiment. As important as tea party groups are, and for all the energy and passion they bring, for every person who showed up at a tea party rally there were dozens more who didn't but who share the deep concerns about Mr. Obama's profligate spending, record deficits and monstrous health-care bill.
The GOP candidate must stay focused on this broader tea party sentiment, not just the organized groups, especially when some of them stray from the priorities that gave rise to them (for example, adopting such causes as the repeal of the 17th Amendment, which established election of U.S. senators by popular vote). The broader sentiment is what swung independents so solidly into the GOP column last fall.
The GOP nominee could also lose if the Republican National Committee (RNC) and battleground-state party committees don't respond to the Obama grass-roots operation with a significant effort of their own. The GOP had the edge in grass-roots identification, persuasion, registration and turnout efforts in 2000 and 2004. It lost these advantages in 2008, big time, in part because its candidate didn't emphasize the grass roots. It must regain them in 2012. Only the RNC and the state party committees can effectively plan, fund and execute these efforts.
Finally, Republicans cannot play it safe. It is tempting to believe that Mr. Obama is so weak, the economy so fragile, that attacking him is all that's needed. Applying relentless pressure on the president is necessary but insufficient. Setting forth an alternative vision to Mr. Obama's will be required as well. Voters are looking for a serious GOP governing agenda as a reason to turn Mr. Obama out of office.
Failing to offer a well-thought-out vision and defend it against Mr. Obama's inevitable distortions, demagoguery and straw-man arguments would put the GOP nominee in the position of Thomas Dewey in 1948, whose strategy of running out the clock gave President Harry Truman the opening he needed.
Mr. Obama could have enjoyed the advantage of incumbency—with its power to set the agenda and dominate the stage—until next spring when the GOP nomination will be settled. Instead he prematurely abandoned the stance of an assured public leader to become an aggressive political candidate. Now his re-election depends on political rivals making significant errors. That's dangerous for any politician, but given his Oval Office record, Mr. Obama may have no other viable strategy.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.