was described as the perfect metaphor
for a presidential candidate who has struggled to answer the question of who he
is and what he believes. It was a gaffe that fed a stereotype that shapes the
political image of Mitt Romney.
But lost amid all the fevered commentary and the din of tweets is the reality
that sometime in the next few months, when the general election campaign starts
in earnest, the public will take a relatively fresh look at what almost
certainly will be a choice between the former Massachusetts governor and
Advisers to the president now see their likely rival as having suffered
potentially permanent damage from a campaign in which he has had to run to the
right to win acceptance from his party’s conservative base. Romney’s advisers
believe otherwise. They see any damage as overstated. They believe the president
has vulnerabilities that have been largely ignored by the media while the
Republicans have been on center stage. And they say that will change once the
nomination battle ends.
Defining the terms of the general election is the coming competition. The
past will not be swept away, as Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom seemed to be suggesting
with his careless reference to the
children’s toy that has become a campaign trail prop for Romney’s rivals. The
record Romney has created during his long run for the nomination will be an
important part of the backdrop for the fall, no matter how hard his campaign
tries to shake up the landscape.
But by summer, the campaign conversation could sound different than it does
today. The outcome in November surely will be affected by daily machinations and
tactical moves and the instantaneous analysis and chatter that surround them.
But it will be influenced more heavily by fundamentals — the state of the
economy, the president’s approval rating
, the deep and often rigid
demographic lines that define red-blue politics. Moving those voters at the
margins will be the challenge for Obama and Romney.
The way it looks now, Romney will have repair work to do to strengthen his
appeal to some voters who may have been turned off by the GOP nomination
campaign. The most significant could be Hispanics, whose votes will be critical
in a number of the states that the Republicans will need to win back. Through
the many GOP debates, Romney went more than the extra mile to run to the right
of his opponents on the issue of immigration.
He denounced Texas Gov. Rick Perry for championing a law that provided
in-state college tuition to resident children of illegal immigrants. He attacked
former House speaker Newt Gingrich for suggesting that illegal immigrants who
have been in the country for a quarter-century or more and have put down
community roots should be allowed to stay as legal residents. He talked about
“self-deportation” of illegal immigrants and described Arizona’s controversial
immigration law as “a model for the nation.”
Romney’s Republican Party colleagues have complicated their eventual
nominee’s efforts to win more votes of women, particularly suburban women, by
extending the debate over Obama’s initial contraception policy and allowing it
to turn into a conversation about women’s rights as much as religious liberty.
The fact that Ann Romney recently began linking the economy to the concerns and
worries of women shows that the campaign is sensitized to the need to find a way
to talk to female voters about economic rather than social issues.
Romney’s misstatements, some taken out of context, have led to an image of a
candidate out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans. The former governor
has talked about friendships with NASCAR owners, rather than talking about the
drivers or the fans. When he talks about the economy on the trail, he speaks
about business owners and entrepreneurs he’s met along the way more than he does
Romney describes the world from the perspective of a CEO, not that of the
ordinary voter. Given the problems Obama has with white, working-class voters,
Romney will win more of their support than the president. But Romney may have to
work harder than the Republican nominee should to hold his share or enlarge it
to offset the reality that the 2012 electorate will have a smaller share of
white voters than in 2008.
So no, there is no wiping the slate clean of all that. But from the
perspective of Romney’s advisers, those factors are not all that the campaign
will be about. They see the general election much differently. The fall
campaign, they say, will not be decided by Etch a Sketch gaffes
or some of the questions about Romney
that have dominated the primary season debate.
Instead, they believe the race will be framed by several broad realities: a
president whose approval rating is below 50 percent, despite an improving
economy; a country still traumatized by the economic collapse of 2008; and an
electorate polarized by the president and his record.
Economic indicators may be pointing up, but Romney advisers believe many
voters are still reeling from the effects of the recession. Those voters, they
say, lack confidence about the future, have doubts about the president’s
leadership and policies, and in the end will not be swayed by a message that
things could have been worse if there is a credible alternative put forward.
In the same sentence in which he mentioned Etch a Sketch, Fehrnstrom talked
about a reset moment for the campaign once the primaries end. That is a more apt
description of what is coming. The Etch a Sketch moment has made it all the more
difficult for Romney to try to undo some of what he’s done in the primaries. He
can’t afford another replay of flip-flop.
But if Romney has his way, the shift from the nomination battle to the
general election will be a moment of restating first principles, not a wholesale
pivot back to the center. There are several touchstones that provide a guide to
what he hopes to do in a general election. One is the speech he gave last summer
when he announced his candidacy. Others are speeches he has given on the nights
when he has won impressive primary victories, such as in Florida and last week
in Illinois. In all of those cases, Romney’s message
focused on the economy, on the size and
shape of the federal government and on the president.
That’s the campaign Romney has wanted to run from the time he started looking
seriously at a 2012 candidacy. He has been knocked off stride by his opponents,
by the conservatism of his party and by his own hand. He needs a reset moment
and no doubt will get it. But will Romney be ready and able when that moment