On April 12, for instance, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen famously said on CNN that Ann Romney, who raised five boys, "never worked a day in her life." She was arguing that Ann Romney was not a fit surrogate for the candidate on economic issues - but Republicans seized on the insult to the millions of mothers who raise their children full time.
The outrage, fed by the Romney campaign and its allies, swept through Twitter and other social media and filled the airwaves on cable TV. Ann Romney, who has battled breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, went on Fox News to describe how hard it was to raise five sons. Within an hour or so of Rosen's remark, Obama's two top political advisers threw her under the bus and then backed over her. Obama criticized her words the next day, and she apologized.
A few days later, Ann Romney admitted the outrage was, just maybe, a little bit of hype. "It was my early birthday present for someone to be critical of me as a mother, and that was really a defining moment, and I loved it," she said in remarks overheard by reporters outside a closed Florida fund-raising event.
According to the conventions of these things, the victims are supposed to appear wounded, not admit delight at a chance to score political points.
And the suspicion in some quarters that liberal elitists disdain stay-at-home moms was useful, helping presumptive nominee Romney begin uniting his party in outrage just as a divisive primary was ending. It also silenced Democrats' talk of a Republican "war on women."
Seizing on GOP proposals for new restrictions on abortion access, and comments by then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum about the immorality of conception, Democrats and their allies in left-leaning interest groups had peddled this theme for weeks. (That, in turn, was a pushback against GOP claims that Obama's administration was making "war" on religious freedom, because of the regulation requiring some religious institutions to provide free birth control in employees' health-care plans.)
Real wars are fueled by ancient feuds; these "wars" live on the latest gaffe or the slightest slip. When the slips occur, both campaigns are locked and loaded, primed for rapid response, and the media environment transmits the underlying moments and the whipped-up outrage faster than ever.
Last week, Democrats were demanding that Romney renounce Nugent for telling the National Rifle Association that the administration uses the Constitution as toilet paper and vowing that if Obama is reelected, "I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year." The Secret Service paid Nugent a visit (and cleared him). Romney's campaign issued a general plea for civility in response to the demands for denunciation.
And then there was the skirmishing over dogs. Obama adviser David Axelrod and others have endlessly needled Romney over his fabled 1983 placing of the family dog, Seamus, in a carrier atop the family station wagon for a 12-hour vacation drive.
Last week, Republicans hit back, hoisting a long-overlooked passage from Obama's autobiography, Dreams From My Father, in which he told of having been served dog meat as a boy in Indonesia. At least Romney didn't snack on Seamus.
Yet it is still likely the election will turn on the economy; a raft of polls out last week found voters are cutting through the fog of fighting words and that the race for the White House is tight.
In a New York Times-CBS News survey, 44 percent of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy; 48 percent did not. In a Pew Research Center poll, just 24 percent said they were satisfied with the way things were going in this country today.
"The people of America are going to choose a president based on jobs, not dogs," Mitt Romney said Wednesday on Fox News, declining a chance to pound the president.
Maybe what politics needs next is a new war: on outrage.
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald
at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "the Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.