WASHINGTON (AP) — If you haven't heard anyone label President Barack Obama or Republican rival Mitt Romney out of touch yet today, consider it a momentary lapse.
"Out of touch" is the go-to label of Campaign 2012. Both candidates are working overtime to firmly affix it to the other guy — and to keep it from sticking to their own skin.
"Is he really that out of touch?" Romney asks of Obama.
"Romney can't hide his out-of-touch policies behind hypocritical rhetoric," Obama's own campaign counters.
The fearsome label packs a lot of punch in just three words: communicating that a candidate can't relate to voters, doesn't care about them and can't be counted on to represent their best interests.
It's a message that can be devastating to a candidate: Republican John McCain and Democrat John Kerry, the unsuccessful nominees of the past two presidential elections, both were cast by their opponents as privileged elites who couldn't relate to the concerns of ordinary Americans.
Remember McCain being pummeled for fumbling a question about how many houses he owned? Or Kerry catching grief for being photographed windsurfing, hardly the all-American pastime?
This year, with more than four months still to go until the election, the out-of-touch message is being chanted like a mantra by both sides.
Romney, with his vast wealth and some cringe-worthy sound bites, has proven more vulnerable on the issue.
A June survey by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of voters felt Obama connected better with ordinary Americans than did Romney, while 28 percent felt Romney did better. That was Obama's biggest advantage among a number of traits tested, including being willing to take a stand, ability to get things done, honesty and taking consistent positions.
It's about the same advantage that Obama held over McCain on the trait in June 2008.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew center, said avoiding the out-of-touch label is important because people "want a sense that the president is with them." He said the campaigns seem to be spending an unusual amount of time this year focusing on who's better connected to voters.
But Kohut cautions that relating to voters "is not the be-all and end-all" in evaluating presidential candidates: "There's also the performance dimension, which is far more important if you had to pick any one thing."
Still, in a race that appears likely to remain close to the end, both candidates are looking for any advantage, and they're engaged in daily combat over who's out-of-touch.
Why the repetition?
"There's lots of research that says that when an idea or a message is repeated, it's more likely to be accepted — although if you repeat it too much, it will become stale," says William Benoit, an Ohio University expert on political rhetoric.
The challenge for the Obama and Romney teams, then, is to find fresh ways to deliver the same out-of-touch message. And they're getting pretty good at it: employing raised eyebrows, mockery, hyperbole, pre-emption and more to drive the idea home in ads, speeches, fundraising appeals and appearances by surrogates.
While Obama personally has personally steered clear of labeling Romney "out of touch," he conveys the same message with other words, often uttered with a tone of incredulity. Campaigning Tuesday in Atlanta, he said Romney's vision was that if "wealthy investors like him ... are doing well, then everybody else is automatically doing well." Noting that Romney's campaign had tried to draw a distinction between "outsourcing" jobs and "off-shoring" jobs to support U.S. exports, the president told his audience, "You cannot make this stuff up."
Vice President Joe Biden, for his part, likes to couple a soft intro with a sharp jab: He calls Romney a "fine man with a beautiful family" then adds; "I don't think he gets it."
Romney's tried a similar tactic, saying of Obama: "We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps, or maybe just not enough time working in the real world." (No mention of the fact that Romney has two Harvard degrees to Obama's one.)
Romney's team, meanwhile, has eagerly milked the president's comment that the private sector is "doing fine" as evidence that Obama doesn't understand the economic hardship still facing many Americans.
The president was "defining what it means to be detached and out of touch," says Romney.
His campaign loves to frame Obama's frequent appearances with celebrities as further evidence he's lost touch. After Obama attended a fundraiser whose hosts included Vogue editor Anna Wintour and actress Sarah Jessica Parker, Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus wrote that Obama was in a "Wintour Wonderland."
"Where would President Obama get an outrageous idea like 'the private sector is doing fine'?" Priebus asked. "Perhaps from one of his many star-studded fundraisers."
The Obama campaign has plenty of its own mocking rejoinders.
"Being called out of touch by a candidate who joked about being unemployed and said he likes to fire people is rich," tweeted campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
The Obama campaign's Lis Smith offered this tweet on Wednesday: "Free advice for (at)Mittromney's campaign: saying that Romney closed his Swiss Bank account in 2010 won't make him seem more in touch."
Surrogates and comedians, too, are looking to score out-of-touch touchdowns.
Stephen Colbert, making hay with Ann Romney's love of dressage, declared horse ballet "our new national pastime" and did his satirical part to give it the common touch by swilling a beer and waving a red foam No. 1 finger in the air.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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