POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 12, 2012
WASHINGTON >> Mitt Romney and his advisers built a reputation during the Republican primaries as tough street fighters skilled in political warfare. They quietly took pride in tearing apart Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and the rest of their rivals.
The aggressive posture ultimately became one of Romney’s selling points, particularly among conservative voters who were searching for a candidate tenacious enough to defeat President Barack Obama in the general election.
But now, even with polls suggesting he is battling Obama to a draw at this stage of the race, Romney finds himself confronting concern that he is not nimble and aggressive enough to withstand the Democratic assault against him.
The president and his re-election campaign have managed to turn the focus of the race in recent days to taxes, outsourcing and Romney’s bank accounts — almost everything except the weak job-creation figures released last week. That has stirred worries among some Republicans that Romney is allowing himself to be defined by the Obama forces and lacks the kind of powerful counterpunch the party base is craving.
Now deep into his second run for the White House, Romney has shown consistent discipline, sticking doggedly to his strategy of making the election about Obama’s stewardship of the economy and for the most part avoiding the traps set for him by rivals.
“If you’re responding, you’re losing,” Romney told Fox News on Wednesday, his voice betraying no concern.
But the latest Democratic offensive has become so intense that the Romney campaign will start a new wave of television commercials Thursday, aides said. In a rapid-fire era of presidential politics, when candidates have the ability to respond at a moment’s notice, the restraint of Romney’s campaign over the past two weeks has opened a round of second-guessing about his insistent focus on the economy.
Conservatives have lit up talk radio programs across the country, worrying whether Romney’s business record has been “Swift Boated,” referring to attacks waged against Sen. John Kerry’s military record in 2004. The Romney campaign headquarters in Boston has been inundated with advice and criticism from donors and supporters who worry that Romney has lost an opportunity to introduce himself on his own terms.
“Team Obama is doing just what we did in 2004, which is to define the opposition furiously and early,” said Mark McKinnon, a strategist who worked on George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. “Most voters don’t have a deep sense of Romney other than he’s not Obama. And in this cycle, that may be enough, but it’s a very risky approach.”
Four months until Election Day, much of the Republican Party’s base is boiling. The latest example came Wednesday, when the House held a symbolic vote to repeal the national health care law upheld last month by the Supreme Court. But Romney was in Houston speaking to the NAACP convention, a sign that he is trying to adhere to his own strategy of working to broaden his appeal to independent and undecided voters.
As his business record and tenure as Massachusetts governor were being relentlessly assailed in television commercials across a range of battleground states, Romney released a Spanish language ad Wednesday that featured his son Craig. He delivered a testimonial about his father, whom he called “a man of great convictions.”
Romney’s advisers acknowledge that the questions about his record and wealth have contributed to a climb in his unfavorable rating among voters. But the campaign does not believe that the overall position of the race has changed, with voters still seeking an alternative to Obama.
While Obama has outspent Romney in battleground states, outside Republican groups have nearly evened the disparity. But the advertising from the major Republican super PACs, Crossroads and Restore Our Future, is aimed at highlighting the president’s economic record rather than defending Romney. Officials close to both groups said Wednesday that they had no plans to change their approach to help defend Romney against the Democratic-led attacks.
While Romney largely avoided an early round of recriminations that often comes after winning a party’s nominating fight, his advisers are feeling it now among some Republicans who worry that he is not taking full advantage of the chance to defeat Obama.
Some think he botched his chance to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the individual mandate portion of Obama’s health care law when his campaign contradicted itself, calling the mandate first “a penalty” and later “a tax.” Others hoped he would have already responded more forcefully to recent attacks the Obama campaign has launched on his time at Bain Capital.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the Romney campaign “should continue to hammer away” on a message of economic growth and job creation and ignore the commentary from conservative critics. He said Republicans would continue to rally behind Romney because of their strong desire to win back the White House.
“I’m not overly worried,” Huckabee said Wednesday in an interview. “Overall, the Romney campaign is being very disciplined, saving their fire until the convention.”
Romney, who is nearing the final stages of his search for a vice president and preparing to take a foreign trip at the end of the month, is devoting only some of his time to attending campaign events, further limiting his ability to control the campaign’s narrative.
He spent much of last week on vacation with his family in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he has a lake house. He is scheduled to return there this weekend and is not planning any public events, while the president sets off on a two-day campaign trip across Virginia.