We can never know whether a more populist Republican presidential nominee — Mike Huckabee, say, or Rick Santorum, or even Rick Perry — might have been able to successfully frame the 2012 election as a simple referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy. Mitt Romney tried and failed to do so — and it’s now an open secret that his campaign has admitted as much.

Michael D. Shear and Ashley Parker report in the New York Times:

With the race now in the home stretch and the debates starting on Wednesday, Mr. Romney’s campaign appears to be shifting course, abandoning its hope of making the election a simple referendum on Mr. Obama’s jobs record.

Instead, Mr. Romney intends to hit the White House with a series of arguments — on energy, health care, taxes, spending and a more direct attack on Mr. Obama’s foreign policy record. …

Aides stress that Mr. Romney will continue to press the economic case against the president. But rather than focusing on Mr. Obama, they plan to stress that voters need to make a choice between two men with different visions of the world. In the briefing with reporters on Monday, aides used the word “choice” more than a dozen times.

On the eve of the first presidential debate, it’s worth taking stock: The Obama campaign preemptively defined Mitt Romney over the summer as an out-of-touch .01 percenter and smug plutocrat (with no little help from Romney himself, it should be noted). According to numerous polls, it has blunted Romney’s advantage on the question of which candidate is best-suited to handle the economy. It has brushed back the Romney-Ryan “Medicare jujitsu” strategy. It has opened up a significant lead in the all-important battleground state of Ohio.

At this point, the Obama campaign is in about as strong a position as it could possibly have hoped for. There is a month to go. Much can happen. Benghazi continues to lurk. The economy is showing weakness on a number of fronts.

Yet Obama has Romney more or less where he wants him.

It’s an astonishing feat, really, for an incumbent president running on such a weak record.