BOSTON – After one of their worst weeks of the general election campaign, Mitt Romney and his advisers are scrambling to refocus their message and make up ground lost to President Obama in several battleground states.
The mood around Romneys Boston campaign headquarters with just over six weeks until Election Day is defiantly upbeat in the face of a series of setbacks.
Given everything weve gone through, everybody wants to count this guy out, said Neil Newhouse, Romney campaigns pollster. And yet the poll numbers dont do that. The poll numbers put him right in the middle of this.
Romney brushed aside questions about the state of his campaign in an interview scheduled to air today on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes. Asked by anchor Scott Pelley how he planned to turn around his campaign, Romney responded: Well, it doesnt need a turnaround. Weve got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president of the United States.
But the sensibility in Boston is also decidedly realistic. Some Romney advisers acknowledge that the burden is on the candidate and those around him to quiet doubters inside their own party and elsewhere and to demonstrate that they have a compelling message, along with a strategy and the discipline to execute it.
The coming week will test whether Romneys campaign can do something its struggled with for many weeks, which is to deliver a coherent and sustained message across every possible platform – in its paid advertising; in what the candidate and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, say on the campaign trail; in the digital world that now helps shape the conversation; and through the many surrogates used to spread and amplify that message.
Then comes the next test, which is the first of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Advisers to both candidates see the Oct. 3 debate in Denver as the best opportunity for Romney to force a shift in the campaigns dynamic, which has been running against the GOP nominee for the past three weeks.
Romney advisers now interpret the state of the race from two contradictory perspectives.
On the one hand, they see national tracking polls that a week ago showed Obama in the lead immediately after his convention but that tightened dramatically after that. Other national polls give Obama a lead.
The other view of the race comes from recent polls in the battleground states that consistently show Romney running behind. Especially troubling are Obamas narrow leads in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, all vital to Romneys chances of winning. If presidential campaigns are really a series of state-by-state contests, Romneys path to 270 electoral votes is far more problematic than Obamas at this moment.
But Romney advisers see a rush to judgment about the state of the campaign by pundits and commentators, and they dismiss suggestions that the campaign has taken a decisive turn.
That view is shared in Chicago among Obamas top advisers, who believe they are in a stronger position than Romney but who expect the race to be close and hard-fought until November.
Im realistic that Romneys had a couple of bad weeks, but theres lots of time for him to recover, said a senior Obama adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to offer an assessment of the race.
Romney advisers acknowledge two potentially significant developments during the Democratic convention that boosted the presidents standing, which, if they persist, could make the challengers path to victory more difficult.
One was a rise in enthusiasm among Democrats, who now appear as energized as Republicans. If that holds, it could change the calculus on who is likely to turn out between now and Nov. 6 in ways detrimental to Romney. Both campaigns say their get-out-the-vote machinery is ready to produce maximum turnout among their supporters.
More worrisome to Romney and the Republicans is what appears to be an unexpected shift in the public mood since the two parties completed their conventions. Although still negative overall about the direction of the country, more Americans now say things are moving in the right direction and more express optimism about the future of the economy.
Romneys advisers, like their counterparts at Obama headquarters in Chicago, are closely monitoring these attitude shifts, admitting they arent certain what caused them or whether they will last until November.
I think that was something they were successful with at their convention, changing the narrative a little bit about things getting better, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie said. I dont know if they can sustain that in the face of economic reality.
Hard to be heard
Two weeks ago, Romneys campaign was set back over a controversy about how he responded to protests in Egypt and the subsequent killing of four Americans in Libya. Romney advisers were frustrated that as a result, a succession of economic reports, all of which could be used to portray Obamas economic record as a failure, were washed away.
They included reports about the rising deficit, the poverty rate (which did not go down), manufacturing jobs (which fell) and the Federal Reserves announcement that the economy would need sizable and indefinite help to create more jobs.
To Romneys team, this was a further sign that the fundamentals of the race leave the president in a vulnerable position – if only Romney can capitalize on those fundamentals more effectively than he has so far. That means Romney and Ryan may have to do more than theyve been doing to remind voters of the current economic conditions, even as they try to explain what they would do if elected.
Romney advisers say they have a message plan – and the target audiences they need to attract – and will start to roll it out in the coming days.
They tried to do this a week ago but were forced to spend most of the week explaining comments by Romney at a spring fundraiser, captured surreptitiously on video, in which he said the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes consider themselves victims and believe they are entitled to government support.
Romney has tried any number of ways to elevate the campaign dialogue to his advantage, drawing a contrast between what he calls the government-centered worldview of the president and his vision for an opportunity society.
But so far hes had trouble for two reasons. He hasnt found a consistent way to frame that contrast, and hes been distracted, or allowed himself to be distracted, by small controversies and chaff thrown up by the opposition.
I dont want to give them message advice, one Obama adviser said, but I think whats hurt them most is they havent given voters any reason to vote for Romney. The question is: Is it too late?
The battle plan
Romney advisers say that in the coming weeks there will be much greater effort at supplying answers to those questions.
In Ohio, Romney plans to try to build more support among blue-collar voters by raising the economic threat of China and highlighting his trade policies cracking down on the country for intellectual-property infringement and currency manipulation.
Romney plans to hammer his message about China cheating, an aggressive stance his strategists believe will help him in Ohio and across the industrial Midwest.
Meanwhile, in northern Virginia, a critical swing region of a key battleground state, Romney is trying to close a deficit with Obama among female voters by stressing debt and government spending issues. The campaign is airing an ad, Dear Daughter, featuring a mother talking to her newborn about her share of the federal debt, and advisers said similar ads are scheduled in the weeks to come.
Its a very, very clear contrast, said one Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely about strategy.
The water is not muddy on this. Obama has a worldview, and weve seen it through the first four years of his presidency, that every problem he encounters he solves by throwing more government money at it – whether its health care, whether its the stimulus, whether its the auto bailout.
Romneys advisers say they are not expecting an instant turnaround.
Were going to stay on it and keep pounding it, Gillespie said. It may not be that it breaks through so much as it penetrates.