The Pew poll on the presidential race released Monday has many interesting findings that will be scrutinized, challenged and assessed with less than one month left in the campaign. The survey, taken after last Wednesday’s debate (good for Romney) and mostly after Friday’s jobs report (good for Obama) shows Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama 49 to 45 among likely voters. Last month, Obama led Romney by eight points among likely voters in the same poll.

It’s a dramatic turnaround and the results are sprinkled with good news for Romney in several areas. He’s improved his standing among women, his voters are more engaged, his personal favorability rating is up. Voters believe that Romney is the candidate of new ideas, he is seen as even with the incumbent president on the matter of who is a stronger leader, and he trails by only three points on the question of which candidate is most willing to work across party lines. And on the issues that voters have consistently told pollsters they care about most–jobs, the economy and deficits–Romney is leading.

All very interesting, all very encouraging for the Romney campaign.

But it’s a finding where Romney trails the president that is most interesting and perhaps provides the Republican with an opportunity. In response to a question about which candidate holds more moderate positions, voters chose Obama–by a margin of 10 points (49 percent to 39 percent).

That’s striking. Obama is an unapologetic, activist liberal. He has expanded the size and scope of government more rapidly than anyone since Lyndon Johnson–arguably since Franklin Roosevelt. He has done nothing to address the unsustainable growth of the federal government and rather than restructure the entitlements that our driving our debt, he has proposed a new one. After the dramatic repudiation of his big government policies in 2010, Obama did not attempt to repackage himself as a centrist, as Bill Clinton had after the 1994 midterm elections. Instead, he gave a State of the Union speech that defended government “investments” and defiantly made the case for more of them. Rather than seek to work with congressional Republicans, he launched a series of “we can’t wait” initiatives and deliberately sought to continue his activism by working around them. And over the past year, Obama has run a “base” election, eagerly defending his embrace of big government rather than trying to hide it–whether in his campaign’s “Julia” web ad or the messaging coming out of the Democratic convention.

There is an obvious opportunity here for the Romney campaign: Tell voters that Obama is not, in fact, a moderate but a proud, activist liberal. Self-identified “conservatives” outnumber self-identified “liberals” by a 2-to-1 margin, and have done so rather consistently for several years, according to Gallup. So there’s little downside to applying ideological labels. Both Romney and Ryan include the ideological critique of Obama in their stump speeches, talking about his preference for a “government-centered” society and the like. But for reasons that are not entirely clear, there has been some resistance to using “liberal” to define the president and his policies. (As we noted early last month, none of those who spoke in prime time at the Republican convention used “liberal” to describe Obama and his agenda.)

Romney campaign sources tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that there has been no directive to avoid using ideological labels and some Romney surrogates and spokesmen–John Sununu and Ryan Williams chief among them–have used “liberal” to describe Obama and his supporters. Read a useful summary of this point here.

Last week, the Republican National Committee and the Romney campaign released an ad that criticized Obama on health care:

Who will raise taxes on the middle class? Barack Obama and the liberals already have. To pay for government-run healthcare, you’ll pay higher taxes and more for your medicine. And their plan includes a trillion dollars in higher taxes – even on the middle class. Mitt Romney and common-sense conservatives will cut taxes on the middle class. And they’ll close loopholes for millionaires. Obama and his liberal allies? We can’t afford four more years.

It’s very effective ad, and not only because it raises Obamacare, which remains unpopular, and reminds voters that they’ll be taxed more to pay for this unpopular program. It also works because it makes the case against the president in a directly ideological way. And though such an ideological attack will not likely appeal to reporters covering the campaign or non-ideological Republican consultants (there are lots of them), it may well appeal to voters–the vast majority of whom do not think of themselves as liberals.

The spot is an RNC/Romney hybrid ad, which means it has to include a general critique of Democrats in addition to its targeted attack on Obama. The ad is part of a nearly $6 million buy and it is running in Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia–meaning voters in several of the most important swing states are seeing this critique of Obama on ideological grounds. That’s a smart move.

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