WASHINGTON — There is deep unease among Republicans, and no shortage of advice for Mitt Romney on how to right his campaign ship in the seven weeks remaining before the election. Some have called for a campaign staff shake-up. Others want Romney to be more visible on the campaign trail. They want more backbone, bigger ideas, and sharper ads.
“An intervention is in order,” wrote Peggy Noonan, a conservative Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Reagan.
But underlying many of Romney’s struggles is his longstanding penchant for saying things that redound against him. Whenever he is struggling, it is usually not the result of a staff error or something his political opponents have done, but because of something the candidate himself has said.
During his foreign trip, it was Romney who upset his hosts by questioning whether Britain was ready to host the Olympic Games. Last week, it was Romney who signed off on a late-night statement, deemed ill-timed by many, questioning President Obama’s leadership in the midst of an unfolding Middle East crisis — going even further out on a limb the next morning. And in the most recent troubles for his campaign, it is Romney’s blunt and dismissive comments in a private fund-raiser that are at the center of the controversy.
It is striking to see such struggles from a candidate who is so guarded, who is so often carefully scripted, and who seems constantly worried that he will make the type of verbal mistake that doomed his father’s 1968 presidential campaign (George Romney said he had been “brainwashed” by US officials about the war in Vietnam).
Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi, said he hoped the latest video would give the Romney campaign a way to recenter the discussion on the differences between his views of government and Obama’s. But in the short term, he said, the remarks in the video were not helpful.
“Look, campaigns are a roller coaster,” Barbour said. “Certainly the last few days have been a distraction. And frankly, every day we’re not talking about Obama’s record and what we want to do for the country is a lost day.”
Some donors have grown frustrated, and some partisans worry that Romney’s struggles could start to drag down Republican congressional candidates unless there is a quick course correction. Republican candidates continued to distance themselves from Romney’s contention that some 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes are dependent on government and refuse to take responsibility.
“[You’ve] got to understand, I grew up with five brothers and sisters. My father was an auto mechanic. My mother was a school cook,” Senator Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada who is in a tight election, told Politico on Wednesday. “I just don’t view the world the same way he does.”
Heller joined a list of other Republicans — including Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, US Senate nominee Linda McMahon of Connecticut, and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico — who distanced themselves from Romney’s comments.
Few have been more direct, though, than Noonan, a respected commentator in conservative circles.
“It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one,” she wrote. “It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It’s always been too small for the moment. All the activists, party supporters, and big donors should be pushing for change.”
Democrats, who had already experienced a bounce in the polls following their convention, are hoping the video has provided them with the turning point they need to create a meaningful gap between Obama and Romney after months of polls showing a neck-and-neck race. A super PAC supporting Obama used Romney’s words in a new ad running in several battleground states.
At a Univision forum in Miami on Wednesday night – and, earlier in the day, at an Atlanta fund-raiser — Romney sought to move past the video, talking more philosophically about his belief that government should have a limited role in people’s lives. He also tried to neutralize his comments, captured on the fund-raiser video, that he was writing off any support from 47 percent of Americans.
“This is a campaign about the 100 percent,” Romney said at the forum, the first time in five days that he had a public event in a battleground state. “And over the last several years you’ve seen greater and greater divisiveness in this country. We had hoped to come back together, but instead you’ve seen us pulled apart, and politics has driven us apart in some respects.”
“So my campaign is about the 100 percent in America,” Romney added. “And I’m concerned about them.”
A new Pew Research poll released on Wednesday put Obama up by 8 points, putting him in the strongest position at this point in the race of any candidate since 1996. A new AP-GfK poll released yesterday put Obama’s approval rating among voting-age adults at 56 percent, the highest level since the death of Osama bin Laden more than a year ago.
But the poll also showed the race a statistical tie among likely voters, which is what some Republicans have been seizing on as a sign that Romney still has time to recover. Another poll — taken by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal — put Obama up 50 percent to 44 percent.
“With just under 50 days to go, this race is a dead heat,” asserted Romney press secretary Andrea Saul when asked for comment.
Following the video’s release on Monday night, Romney conceded that his comments were “off the cuff” and “not elegantly stated.” His running mate, Paul Ryan, on Wednesday called Romney’s comments “obviously inarticulate.”
Romney’s self-inflicted verbal wounds have come throughout the campaign. In the crucial final days before the New Hampshire primary, Romney said in reference to insurance companies, “I like to fire people who provide services to me.”
The day after winning the Florida primary, his campaign was consumed by having to clarify his comment in a CNN interview that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” In the lead-up to the Michigan primary, he told a crowd that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
The comments, chalked up as gaffes, have distracted from the message Romney has sought to drive in his campaign: that Obama has not done enough to improve the economy.
With a nod to Noonan’s view that Romney’s campaign needs outside help, one Republican familiar with Romney said: “The fault with the calls for an intervention is you can’t replace the candidate. You have to lay the lion’s share of the blame at Romney’s feet. Because he’s the candidate, he’s the guy that’s not catching on” he said.
While some — including Noonan and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks — are criticizing Romney for not broadly reaching out to independents in the center, social conservatives who largely opposed Romney in the past insist they are energized.
“I don’t get the sense that they’re in panic mode in my communication with them,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who spoke with campaign officials on Monday. “Mitt Romney is not the typical politician who reacts. He’s very methodical, he has a plan, and he’s working that plan. I don’t always agree with every part of it, but he sticks to it.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.