(The Root) — The first presidential debate is finally here, and the once-nervous chatter of many inside the GOP has turned to outright groans about the state of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. From Peggy Noonan to Joe Scarborough to George Will, conservatives (myself included) have become increasingly anxious about a campaign in which the optics, the sound bites and even the polls are saying that this election is headed in the wrong direction for Republicans. Even Charles Krauthammer noted, "If we can't win this election, we should turn in our credentials as a political party."
As I've said for several months now, this election is and will be about the numbers: 23 million (unemployed), 8.2 percent (the unemployment rate), $16 trillion (U.S. debt) and 46 million (Americans living in poverty), along with 43 (the number of continual months of unemployment above 8 percent), 8 (the percentage by which individual incomes have shrunk since 2009) and the power combination of 11.2 percent (what the effective unemployment rate would be if people who have stopped looking for work were counted) and 8 million (the number who have quit looking for jobs since the "recovery" began).
But it is the numbers 47 (the percentage of Americans who, according to Romney, won't vote for him) and 14.1 (the effective tax rate that Romney paid in 2011 on his investment income) that seem to have captured the collective imagination of both the media and political worlds. Too bad for them that the rest of us live in the world fixated on the other numbers above.
Since the debates are about to begin and we are in the waning weeks of the 2012 campaign, let's just put all of these numbers in the context they belong.
It is unfathomable to me that Romney chose this time, so close to the national debates, to release his tax returns, particularly on the heels of what conservative columnist Bill Kristol called "insensitive and stupid comments" about "the 47 percent." To release his returns not only at a time when he desperately needs to get back on message but also in a way that furthers the negative narrative about his wealth can only be described as political malfeasance. It feeds into the Democrats' "Who is this rich guy?" ads just as voters begin to make their final assessment of the candidates, their campaigns and who should be the next president of the United States. The American people and the Romney campaign can certainly do without a discussion about the numbers 47 and 14.1.
Which raises the question: When will the Romney brain trust figure out that their strategy from day 1 — that of making this election a referendum on Obama — won't work? Granted, the campaign toyed briefly with the idea of making this a "choice election" when they selected Paul Ryan, but they appear to have abandoned that idea. American voters already know the economy sucks, so telling them that gets you nothing. When the tank is empty, it's empty.
Moreover, because we haven't had a new economic crisis lately (the Dow Jones industrial average is sitting at over 13,000 — another number), look for the Obama team to claim that things really aren't as bad as they were four years ago. The president has done a masterly job at this point of suppressing a microsentiment — "I'm really not better off than I was four years ago" — with a macrosentiment: "It's bad, but not as bad as it could have been, and it's slooooooowly getttttting betttttter!"
In effect, the president is counting on voters' viewing their personal situation as relatively less painful or important than the larger picture. Unfortunately, Romney's referendum on Obama relies on how people view their personal situation to garner the momentum he needs to defeat the president.
So when Romney finds himself standing next to President Obama on the biggest stage of his political career, he should forget about the numbers that make up the Democrats' political playbook of misdirection and bright shiny objects and instead look every voter in the eye and talk to us — with specifics — about the real numbers of this campaign and remind us that we are not better off as a nation just because "it could be worse."
In short, he must answer perhaps the most important question: Now what?
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.