The good news for Democrats this week is that Todd Akin has thrown Republicans off-message, pushing the GOP's extremism on reproductive rights into the spotlight. The bad news for Democrats this week is that Akin is also distracting attention away from what they want to talk about.
President Obama was in Columbus, Ohio, yesterday, pressing an issue that hasn't gotten much attention in the presidential race, but which Obama's re-election team sees as a key issue: education, or more specifically, Mitt Romney's vulnerability on education.
Here's a quote from the speech:
"When a high school student in Youngstown asked him what he would do to make college more affordable for families like his, Governor Romney didn't say anything about grants or loan programs that are critical to millions of students to get a college education. He said nothing about work-study programs or rising college tuition. He didn't say a word about community colleges or how important higher education is to America's future. He said, the best thing you can do is shop around. 'The best thing I can do for you is to tell you to shop around.'
"That's it. That's his plan. That's his answer to young people who are trying to figure out how to go to college and make sure that they don't have a mountain of debt -- shop around and borrow more money from your parents.
"Now, I want to make sure everybody understands. Not everybody has parents who have the money to lend. That may be news to some folks, but it's the truth."
Obama added, "[P]utting a college education within reach for working families just doesn't seem to be a big priority for my opponent," which seems self-evidently true.
Indeed, what makes this issue seem especially salient is that Romney doesn't have much of a defense. Obama's criticisms are accurate, and the Republican campaign isn't even trying to suggest otherwise.
By Romney's own admission, he intends slash Pell Grants, cut college tax credits, reintroduce the loan-system middleman that rewards banks instead of students, and encourage young people to choose wealthy parents when thinking about higher education.
After the president went on the offensive, the Romney campaign issued a statement from a surrogate, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who argued that Romney, unlike Obama, will support private-school tuition vouchers.
But this is a non-sequitur -- putting aside the fact that vouchers are an unsuccessful, unpopular policy, they apply to K-12 education, and have literally nothing to do with making higher ed more accessible or affordable.
In other words, asked to defend Romney's position on helping young people get their degrees, the Romney campaign's main goal is to change the subject. Call me crazy, but given the number of families affected by education policy, this seems important.
Greg Sargent had a good piece yesterday equating Romney's problems on education with Romney's problems on Medicare.
Dems see the Ryan plan's impact on education as absolutely central to their efforts to portray the GOP ticket's priorities as dangerously out of whack for everyone but the wealthy. It's also key to Dem hopes of winning over key swing constituencies, such as independents, Latinos and non-college "waitress moms," and central to firming up support among the "Rising American Electorate," the Dem coalition of minorities, young voters and unmarried women.
A good window into the thinking of Dem strategists can be found in a July poll on the Ryan budget done in July by the Dem firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, whose findings are widely respected by top Dems.
The poll, which tested various messages about the Ryan plan, found that one of the leading voter concerns about the Ryan budget is cuts to education, particularly among key constituencies, and that those cuts raise serious doubts about Romney when voters are told that he supports the Ryan agenda.
Andrew Baumann, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan, told Greg, "There's a lot the voters don't like about the Ryan budget, but education is at least as important to voters as the Medicare piece is."
My instincts on what voters will care about are often wrong, but this seems like an issue worth watching.