A few weeks back, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, eminences on the masthead of Politico, co-authored a powerful story about disarray in the Mitt Romney campaign. Titled ”Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled,” the story began with a spectacular anecdote about how campaign leadership botched the drafting of Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Anchoring the piece was an extensive on-the-record interview with campaign strategist Stuart Stevens.
Today at 5:19 a.m. landed another installment in this series: “Inside the campaign: The Romney rebellion” speaks of a “course correction” driven by Ann and Tagg Romney to change the way the candidate presents himself to the public. These two had pushed for changes over a protracted period, write Allen and VandeHei. And then:
Shortly before the first debate, it finally boiled over.
What followed was a family intervention. The candidate’s family prevailed on Mitt Romney, and the campaign operation, to shake things up dramatically, according to campaign insiders. The family pushed for a new message, putting an emphasis on a softer and more moderate image for the GOP nominee — a “let Mitt be Mitt” approach they believed more accurately reflected the looser, generous and more approachable man they knew.
The rest of the story alleges a Romney campaign with redrawn lines of authority, a “fenced in” Stuart Stevens, a new strategy toward getting the candidate’s human side out to the public and a more in-control Tagg Romney. Classic Politico insiderish information, though the text leaves a number of questions:
Question No. 1: Can we get a single on-the-record source here, fellows?
If there’s one front on which Politico is always diligent, it’s alerting readers that it can’t get anyone to speak on the record. Here’s the disclaimer in this Allen-VandeHei product:
This story is based on campaign sources with direct knowledge of the events. The sources insisted on anonymity in order to discuss internal disputes and operations.
In other words, trust us.
VandeHei didn’t respond to a set of questions, one of which was a query as to whether Politico should require such a piece to have at least ONE source on the record. Would a pair of junior reporters at Politico be able to squeak such an opus past VandeHei?
Question No. 2: A rebellion entails a battle. Where is the battle?
It’s possible that Politico chose to bill this campaign development as a “rebellion” because of the alliterative partnership with “Romney.” Yet the story falls short of proving a rebellion, in large part because there’s no detail about a clash — a meeting or confrontation in which the Ann-Tagg lobby prevails upon the stiff political professionals. Absent such detailed reporting, the piece leaves open the less sensational possibility that the emergence of a more personal, emotional Romney-on-stump is more the result of an evolution rather than a rebellion. On that front, the Politico story notes that the Ann-Tagg concerns were “long building.”
Question No. 3: Just what is the shakeup here?
If there’s a successful rebellion, then there needs to be staff upheaval. Here’s how Allen and VandeHei present that dimension of things (bolded text inserted to highlight Erik Wemple Blog retro-editing):
Behind the scenes, the high command has changed with the candidate. Senior adviser Ed Gillespie, for instance, has rising responsibility for the campaign’s broad message. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades is commanding the stagecraft, the insiders said. And Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), originally brought in as Romney’s debate sparring partner, has become a close and trusted adviser.>>>Hey Mike and Jim, can we get more detail on how these moves represent the upshot of the “rebellion” and not just general, informal campaign drift?
Question No. 4: Who cares what Stephanie Cutter says?
In an apparent effort to get at least someone on the record in the piece, Allen-VandeHei resort to Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter, who says:
“He had a good performance at the debate, but he also gave us some openings, and we’ll take advantage of them,” Cutter said. “He has temporarily changed his narrative from being the candidate who couldn’t shoot straight to one that’s a good debater. Now, that’s great. But 30 days out from an election, it doesn’t mean that you’ve changed any critical dynamic in this race, like convincing middle-class voters that they can trust you.”
She offers no insight on the internal operations of the Romney campaign.
Question No. 5: How brilliant are these guys?
Read the story several times, and a smart journalistic strategy surfaces: Grab a trend that has been amply discussed in the media — i.e., the softening of Romney on the hustings — and fight like the dickens to get some inside campaign sources to explain how it evolved.
Question No. 6 (rhetorical): How limp is the Romney campaign’s denial?
This afternoon the Erik Wemple Blog requested an interview with the Romney campaign about the story. “It’s nonsense,” responded campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul via e-mail. When pressed for details, she noted, “It’s just not true.” Requests for a phone interview went nowhere.
Fellow campaign spokesman Kevin Madden struck the same tone today when he told reporters:
It doesn’t make any sense to any of us who are on the campaign. Everyone right now is working really hard and really well together — very focused on getting the governor’s message out.
A symmetry is forming here: The Politico story lacks the sort of detail required to make the story stick; the campaign’s denial lacks the sort of detail required to un-stick the story. Perhaps the tie goes to the publisher. Whatever the case, Politico feels cocksure enough of its conclusions to go all Newt Gingrich in the nut graph:
When the history of this campaign is written, the family intervention will be among the most important turning points in the Romney saga.