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Romney needs to be part of solution

While the nation's capital was in the midst of furious rounds of negotiations and recriminations over what kind of deal would be made to raise the debt ceiling, political reporters received a missive from Mitt Romney's presidential campaign that served as a reminder of how irrelevant this kerfuffle might feel next year.

The headline read, "Romney for President Launches New Web Video: Obama Isn't Working: Where are the Jobs?"

The video spoke to the difficulties that new college graduates are having finding work in a brutal job market. This bit of campaign propaganda went straight at the core of President Obama's political base -- young Americans who volunteered for him by the tens of thousands in 2008 and powered him to victory in state after state. If joblessness disillusions enough of those voters, the president will be in trouble.

Romney's exercise was just a passing bit of politics unlikely to make many waves in an environment obsessed with debt and fears of betrayal among conservatives and liberals alike. But it was hugely instructive.

The Romney video was more in touch with what voters are worried about than anything going on inside our famous Beltway. Consider a Gallup Poll released last week. Asked what was the most important problem facing the country, 31 percent of Americans said the economy and an additional 27 percent specifically said unemployment and jobs, for a total of 58 percent. Only 16 percent listed the deficit or the debt.

While the president is snared in a trap set by the Republicans over the debt ceiling, Romney is campaigning on the electorate's animating issue. It's a nice division of labor for the GOP. Obama is caught up in the tea party's priorities. Romney isn't. It's upside-down politics.

Then there is Romney himself. The conventional wisdom is that he is a weak front-runner, short of support from a Republican establishment that should be rallying around him. There's some truth to this. The interest in Texas Gov. Rick Perry's probable candidacy reflects a hunger on the Republican side for more choices.

Yet Perry will also prove to be a flawed candidate who is far to the right of the country. And on one front, he will enter the race with the worst of both worlds. With his Texas swagger, he will remind those who don't like George W. Bush of George W. Bush. But many supporters and confidantes of the former president don't like Rick Perry at all, regarding him as a lightweight who has turned on his patron.

It was Bush who made Rick Perry by sweeping him in as lieutenant governor in 1998. Running for re-election, Bush's victory margin was 1,385,229 votes. Perry, running separately, received only 68,731. I had a chance to watch the creation of Perry when I visited a Republican phone bank in Texas shortly before the general election. Republican volunteers weren't interested in pro-Bush Democrats who would then vote against Perry. Bush's campaign concentrated on pulling to the polls only those voters who supported both of them.

The ingenuity of this strategy, engineered by Karl Rove, barely got Perry through. So you can imagine that there's now a certain resentment in the Bush camp over the snide comments Perry has been making about Bush as a big spender.

Which brings us back to Romney. There is little doubt that the Bush forces in Republican politics -- they still have a lot of influence -- will do all they can to undermine Perry, as they have been trying to undermine Michele Bachmann's candidacy. Unless Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman show more signs of life than they are demonstrating now, this will leave Romney as the alternative.

That's why Romney is running more of a general election race than a primary campaign. If Romney can keep himself disentangled from the tea party-engineered dysfunction in Washington, he can cast himself as the business guy who always kept his eye on the one ball voters themselves are watching: jobs. Obama, in the meantime, will be the president who negotiated a budget deal that is likely to leave no one particularly happy -- and may do little or nothing for job growth.

True, Obama has to govern and Romney doesn't. But for now, Romney is making the most of a mess his party helped create but from which he will try to keep a happy distance.