WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney has not appeared on a Sunday news program in 20 months. He has held only a handful of events in recent weeks at which the public was allowed to ask questions. He is one of the few candidates yet to air a television ad.
For a front-runner who has thrived in debates - and is seen as one of the most substantive and polished in the field - the former Massachusetts governor continues to take a strikingly risk-averse approach to his second presidential campaign.
“He has all the urgency of a guy with four aces in his hand,’’ said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a make-no-mistakes sort of strategy, and that’s limiting his exposure.’’
But the strategy - a careful calculation to insulate Romney from making significant missteps - also has risks of its own as he seeks to break out of what seems to be a ceiling of about 25 percent in national polls.
While Romney has participated in nine presidential debates and nearly 20 town hall meetings, he has stayed away from traditional campaign settings such as Sunday talk shows and avoided extended interviews with much of the national media. Instead, the campaign has sought to control its message and reach targeted audiences by using social media tools such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. The strategy is designed in part to lower the odds that Romney will make the kind of gaffes that have subsumed the campaigns of other candidates.
The campaign, which has spent much of its energy on closed-door fund-raising, has also sought to avoid the kind of impromptu press encounters that can result in a misstatement. When Romney appeared at a recent event in Troy, Mich., his aides tried to shoo away any press questions, telling a frustrated television reporter that the candidate would be taking none. Romney even declined to take the bait when a reporter tried to get his opinion of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s inability to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate.
“These other candidates have their hands full with their own gaffes,’’ said former senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who has endorsed Romney. “That’s taking a lot of the air out of what would have otherwise been a standard campaign, with more of a sense of competition going on. But that’s not Governor Romney’s fault.’’
“I don’t think it means a darn thing,’’ Gregg said of Romney’s lack of national media exposure. “Voters, certainly in New Hampshire, have had a chance to meet him, talk to him. He’s been to every town twice as far as I can tell. And the debates have been omnipresent.’’
Unlike other candidates, Romney does not need national media exposure to increase his name recognition and has a campaign organization mostly in place. That has enabled him to be more picky about how and where he chooses to appear.
Earlier this year, Romney went on ABC-TV’s “The View,’’ and he was interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN.
Romney has even kept his appearances to a minimum on Fox News, a favorite hangout of Republican candidates. He has made only 12 appearances since June, putting him at the bottom of the field and below two candidates who have dropped out (Tim Pawlenty and Thaddeus McCotter), three who never entered (Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and John Bolton), and three who barely registered in the polls (Gary Johnson, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman), according to a tally by the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America.
Hosts of the Sunday shows have begun to highlight Romney’s absence. “He has not appeared on this program or any Sunday talk show since March of 2010,’’ Fox News host Chris Wallace told viewers Oct. 30, following an interview with Perry. “We invited Governor Romney again this week, but his campaign says he’s still not ready to sit down for an interview.’’
The Democratic National Committee immediately mocked Romney as “Chicken Mitt.’’
Romney also has not made an appearance during this campaign on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’ Romney has appeared on the show four times, only one of which - in December 2007 - was for a one-on-one interview. In that campaign, he was the last Republican to agree to come on for the segment.
By the campaign’s accounting, Romney this year has done 39 TV interviews and 52 radio interviews. Aides also note that he has met with newspaper editorial boards to discuss his policies.
Several of Romney’s editorial board meetings have generated controversy, perhaps demonstrating why he avoids more high-profile sessions. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the foreclosure process should “run its course and hit the bottom,’’ prompting Democrats to run ads characterizing him as insensitive. With the Portsmouth Herald, Romney said he has been “as consistent as any human can be’’ but that he “cannot state every single issue in the exact same words every single time.’’
Huntsman, who appeared on “Meet the Press’’ earlier this month and has struggled to gain traction in the polls, said he was unsure why Romney has not appeared on such shows.
“I don’t know the reason behind it,’’ he said in an interview with the Globe yesterday. ’’But I will tell you that speaking to the American people through all mediums is an important part of getting elected president.’’
But Romney continues his alternative strategy. Yesterday, Romney participated in a Google-plus “hangout,’’ the first in a series that is being conducted by Fox News host Bret Baier. It allows 10 guests to participate at one time, mostly through a video chat, as others tune in online.
Romney took several questions, with live video of three voters streamed while they sat on their couch or in front of a tree-lined backyard.
At the end of the 15-minute segment, Baier asked Romney whether he would participate again. Romney smiled and said, “I want to make sure that more than three people tuned in.’’Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.