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As Romney’s slip-ups show, gaffes nearly unavoidable on modern campaign trail

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There’s an old saying in political circles: A gaffe is what you make when you unintentionally say what you really believe. If that’s the case, Mitt Romney really has been speaking his mind lately.

More accurate, of course, is that in speaking his mind, Romney let slip a few lines that, taken out of context, distort or oversimplify his views.

I’m not concerned about the very poor,” the man reportedly worth $250 million said in an interview this week, inadvertently reminding everyone that he is reportedly worth $250 million.

“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” Romney said in January in a comment that was meant to refer to health-care insurance providers but was widely perceived as meaning: He likes firing people.

There’s no doubt Romney’s camp would like to take back those comments, primarily because they reinforce — fairly or not — a caricature of him as a wealthy man who is out of touch with people struggling in a tough economy.

Candidates are required to blab endlessly on the campaign trail these days, often in a blur of travel, bad food and little rest. No major candidate in modern times has been able to avoid saying something that would come back to bite him or her later, as Barack Obama found in 2008 when he complained about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns and religion.”

Question is, what’s a campaign to do?

For starters, experts say, it helps to acknowledge that you’ve got a problem.

“Campaigns get into trouble when they go into a tailspin of denial,” said Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. “Don’t become combative and blame the media or say they’re in cahoots with your opponents [amid the fallout of a misstatement]. The key ingredient is to recognize that whatever gaffe or inartful statement has been made . . . that there’s a window of opportunity to provide the proper context. You have to relentlessly and methodically provide that context.”

In the case of Romney’s comment about “the very poor,” the candidate and his campaign did immediate damage control this week, pointing out that poor people have a “safety net” and that Romney’s ­focus is on helping the middle class.

As Romney put it later, “We will hear from the Democrat party the plight of the poor, and there’s no question it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor.”

Candidates are on safer ground when sticking to their stump speeches, which they give hundreds of times during a campaign, or relying on talking points, which they often review before appearing in public. Some politicians are loath to place themselves in a format that might encourage them to let loose.

Speechwriter and historian Jeff Shesol said President Lyndon Johnson worried about what he might say when his aides asked him to hold a news conference without a lectern. Even though Johnson was good speaking extemporaneously, he felt the setting was too informal and unpresidential and encouraged him to be dangerously relaxed.

Nevertheless, “you can’t script a candidate so completely that someone so gaffe-prone or Freudian-slip-prone isn’t going to mess up,” said Shesol, who wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton and now runs his own strategy firm, West Wing Writers.

The modern campaign, Shesol pointed out, offers candidates many opportunities to make a comment that is open to misinterpretation or simply say something dumb: press availabilities on the candidate’s plane, TV interviews, town hall meetings, banter on rope lines, meet-and-greets in the diner. Every exchange may be recorded on a smartphone and replayed.

“You can’t spend your day trying to script someone,” Shesol said.

But there are gaffes, and then there are whoppers. A misstatement of a few facts is not likely to do lasting damage. Comments that play into an existing narrative about a candidate, however, may reinforce a negative picture.

That is why Romney’s gaffes may be more damning than those made by his Republican opponents, such as Newt Gingrich’s controversial statement in the fall that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Voters expect a certain amount of hyperbole and bomb-throwing from Gingrich, said Chris Lehane, an adviser on Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, but Romney’s comments build a portrait of him as insensitive.

“It becomes part of a pattern,” he said.

During the 2000 campaign, Lehane said, Gore could get away with minor factual errors because voters perceived him as a wonky, if somewhat wooden, politician. His opponent, George W. Bush, had the opposite problem, and minor factual errors fed a perception that Bush had a tenuous grasp of the issues.

Romney’s latest statements are likely to be added to a list of similar comments, such as when he said that the $374,000 he earned in speaking fees in 2010 wasn’t “very much.” Or when he said, half-jokingly, that there were times when he worried about being laid off. Or when he proposed a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry during one of the Republican debates.

Or when he said “Corporations are people, too, my friend,” in response to a heckler who had taunted him about his reluctance to raise taxes on corporations.

Rhetorically, those comments put Romney in handcuffs, Lehane said — the more he talks about his business expertise and his plans for stimulating the economy, the more voters will remember his seemingly insensitive statements.

“Ultimately, you have to ask: Do [his] mistakes have a shelf life or will they dissipate over time?” Lehane said.

The irony is that Romney, a candidate criticized for being somewhat robotic, may have to learn to be even more controlled on the campaign trail.

“The media and the public at large are always begging the candidates to let down their guard and talk in frank terms,” Madden said. “And often, they punish you for doing exactly that.”

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