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President Barack Obama: in deep trouble

The RealClearPolitics poll average puts President Barack Obama at 47 percent and Romney at 44.2 percent - statistically insignificant lead of 2.2 percent.

Drill down into the numbers of the latest CBS poll and there are ominous signs for Obama. Only 33 percent of Americans believe the economy is moving in the right direction. A mere 16 percent feel they are getting ahead financially. Some 38 percent think their situation will get worse if Obama is re-elected, 26 percent think it will get better.

A cursory look back at incumbent versus challenger presidential races does not give Obama much comfort.

In April 1976, President Gerald Ford was in about the same position as Obama is now. He lost the 1976 general election to Jimmy Carter by two points. In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter was leading Ronald Reagan by 38 points to 32 points with John Anderson on 22. In November 1980, Reagan won by 10 points.

In April 1992, President George H.W. Bush was on 46 percent and Bill Clinton on 26 percent. In November 1992, Clinton won by six points. In April 2004, President George W. Bush was on 50 percent and John Kerry on 44 percent. In November 2004, Bush won by two points.

We are already past the point at which it seems plausible that 2012 will be a repeat of 1996 when the incumbent (Clinton) cruised to a comfortable eight-point victory over the challenger (Bob Dole). Rather, we are probably looking at a 1992 scenario - an incumbent defeat - or a 2004 race - the incumbent (or the challenger) eking out a narrow victory.

All the signs are that Obama will try to do to Romney what Bush did to Kerry in 2004 - make the election turn on the character of the challenger rather than being a referendum on the incumbent. It was brutal, it was ugly and it was a process of grinding out a win on the basis of consolidating the Republican base and dividing the country.

The Romney campaign, which includes a number of people who helped map out and execute that strategy for Bush, is all too aware of the dangers of Romney falling into the same trap as Kerry and allowing himself to be defined by Obama.