Evidence of campaign infighting has put Mitt Romney in a place that no candidate wants to be with just 50 days left before an election -- caught between re-tooling a message that appears to be flagging and the inevitable "Is the campaign imploding?" questions that such a strategic shift inevitably set off.
In the wake of a Politico story that detailed campaign strife largely aimed at Romney lead political strategist Stuart Stevens, the campaign held a conference call this morning led by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie designed to stamp out the story -- and make clear that Romney is going to start talking more specifically about his own plan to turn the economy around.
"We do think the timing is right to reinforce more specifics about the Romney plan for a strong middle class," said Gillespie, calling the move "more of a natural progression" than any re-tooling of the campaign.
While Gillespie didn't face any direct questions about the Politico story, the piece loomed over the call; at the start of the call, Gillespie touted the party's strong convention -- in a seeming direct response to the allegations made in the Politico story that it had been a comedy of errors. ("What's a big deal is they are behind and blew the convention," said one senior Republican operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about the Romney effort.)
To be clear: Average people almost certainly have no idea that the Romney campaign is facing inner turmoil (if indeed they are). But, the Republican activist and donor bases as well as -- most importantly -- the party's political professional class certainly do.
Given that reality, to do nothing in the face of the criticism of the campaign would be to ensure further criticism, which, in turn, would fuel more stories about the Romney campaign in disarray. (Hello vicious cycle!)
What Gillespie sought to do on the call is to make the case for the campaign moving into a new (and better) messaging stage without acknowledging the criticism of how the operation has worked over the past few weeks. That's a smart attempt to thread the needle -- to make clear to Republican insiders that their voices have been heard without further aiding and abetting stories about the turmoil churning within Romney's campaign.
It remains unclear at this early date whether that strategy will work or whether the Romney team will be forced to address the allegations in the Politico story in a more direct way or even change personnel in order to placate the complaints of the GOP political world.
All of that depends on whether Romney can reverse the polling slide -- particularly in several key swing states -- that he has experienced since the conclusion of the Democratic convention. Romney loyalists insist that Obama's convention bounce is already fading -- they note he is down from a 7 point lead in Gallup daily tracking to a 3 point edge -- and that the state-by-state numbers will also rebound in kind.
If the numbers start to move back in Romney's direction. the stories about campaign infighting will almost certainly disappear with them. (Strife rarely emerges when a team is winning; losing teams are the one plagued by second-guessers. Remember that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.") If the numbers don't reverse themselves, however, the complaints are likely to only grow louder. And that would be a major problem for Romney with just 50 days left before the November election.