1. Identify the opponents greatest strength.
2. Work to weave that into a weakness by building a narrative that supports the idea that this is a weakness, not a strength. This is easy because any strength can be recast as a weakness, just as any weakness can be recast as a strength.
3. Keep pushing things that support your chosen narrative.
4. When pressed, push back on the way in which the opponent tries to respond. Make everything look like a gaff, or a thing that confirms your point. If the opponent doesn't provide you with something, find a surrogate who did something.
5. Force the opponent to keep denying the same things over an over. If they use the same denials, this reenforces your message. If they try a different tactic, focus on the switch. Why are they changing storyline now? Make the inconsistency the story.
6. Do not try to educate reporters, manipulate them.
The slide to the bottom happens. Anyone who tries to remain above the fray loses big time. As a result, you will invariably create an enemy in your image, but who has learned from everything you did to be able to do it better. Republicans used to be able to paralyze Democrats on this by feeling bad and claiming the moral high ground. Doesn't work anymore. Not enough people remember politics before Fox News revolutionized it nearly 20 years ago. The people who could be outraged or disappointed left the room a long time ago, or are sticking around anyway no matter how awful they feel.
Mind you, the Clintonistas never learn. But even they are starting to see that the old Republican line about "class warfare" is not a vote killer the way it used to be. The middle class that the Clintonistas learned to pander to as the key to elections in the early and mid-1990s no longer exists. There are no Soccer Moms who are confident enough about their economic security that they basically want to maintain the status quo and therefore focus on social issues or issues related to the security of their children -- like guns in school. Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads alike -- as well as every other magic demographic -- want to have someone who will make them feel like they have an economic future, or at least won't screw them over.
Which is the whole point of the Bain attacks. Yes, it has all these delightful spin-offs from a Dem perspective of undermining Romney's overall credibility. But it is not (as Republicans claim) an effort to distract from the tepid economy. That is a given, and no one in the Obama camp thinks you can dance around it. Instead, the Dem message is more negative: "Whether or not Obama can actually fix things, he won't deliberately throw you under the bus to save his buddies -- but Romney will. Look at how he 'creates jobs.' If he is running the White House, even if the economy improves, it will be on your back."
All of this neutralizes Romney's ability to talk about how he understands business and therefore is best positioned to repair the economy. Through the power of repetition and association, Romney's chief credential -- his highly profitable experience at Bain -- now works against him. Every time he reminds people what a swell job he did at Bain, it also reminds him that he did it by putting people like them out of a job without blinking an eye.
Meanwhile, Republicans have nothing particularly new they can use against Obama. Everyone supporting Obama already knows how the economy is doing and whether they think Obama is at fault or the Republicans in the House are at fault. Even if things continue to tread water, it is unlikely that this will do much to erode Obama's support significantly because the information is already known and expected. At this point, Romney needs to persuade those giving Obama the benefit of the doubt that he can do a better job. But the less he can point to his success at Bain as proof, the harder it is for him to make the case.
It is a long way to election day yet, and people don't really focus on this much until after the conventions and after Labor Day. And we will have the debates, which are likely to play a significant role in how people view the candidates. But Romney is running out of time to seize the narrative. Something can always happen, of course. A disastrous jobs report (not merely a tepid one) or a war in the Middle East could really change the dynamic of the race. But without these, it seems that the Democratic strategy of gradually whittling away at Romney's potential support and leaving him only the die-hard Obama haters is likely to prove effective -- or at least give the Republican strategy of keeping actual Democrats from voting a run for its money.