Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 21, 2012

It is typical of Mitt Romney’s luck that, on the morning after he all but secured the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign became embroiled in a controversy over a 1950s plastic toy.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

On Wednesday, hours after Romney’s 12-point victory over Rick Santorum in the Illinois primary silenced most of the remaining doubters, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom went on CNN and gave new meaning to the term “game change.”

I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” he said, explaining why the fight for conservative primary voters has not pushed Romney too far to the right. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

Etch a Sketch?

Actually, it appeared more like Romney was playing Chutes and Ladders: He just landed on Space 87 and slid all the way back to 24. Suddenly, Romney’s event at an American Legion hall here in the Baltimore suburbs was transformed from a gab session about gas prices into an Etch a Sketch fest.

Alice Stewart, a Santorum aide, brought a bagful of pocket-size Etch a Sketches and handed them out in the parking lot. (Your correspondent, threatened with arrest by a Maryland state trooper who was blocking the door to keep reporters from the melee, was rewarded by Stewart with a blue Etch a Sketch.) “Conservative principles should be written in stone, not on Etch a Sketch,” the Santorum aide declared righteously.

You sunk my battleship!

Thirty feet away, Romney was shaking hands. Reporters inquired: Would he address the toy story? “We think gas prices are more important,” spokesman Rick Gorka replied, examining the reporters’ Etch a Sketches.

Santorum, who has taken Romney apart as if playing Operation, posed in his car Wednesday with the rectangular device. His campaign tweeted out the photo with the caption “@RickSantorum studying up on @MittRomney policy positions.”

“You take whatever he said and you can shake it up and it will be gone, and he’s going to draw a whole new picture for the general election,” Santorum crowed at a campaign stop in Louisiana.

Also campaigning in Louisiana, Newt Gingrich, who has turned the trail into a round of Twister, gave an Etch a Sketch to a young girl in the audience and told her, “You could now be a presidential candidate.”

Will Romney ever end his string of debilitating gaffes? As the Magic 8 Ball says: Outlook not so good.

After the New Hampshire primary, Romney appeared to have it made in Candy Land. But Santorum and Gingrich felled his inevitability like dominoes, and — Sorry! — Romney finds himself in a coast-to-coast game of Connect Four with competitors who were not supposed to have been in his league but who are benefiting from voters’ disenchantment with him.

There is some enthusiasm for the Republican front-runner. Outside the Romney event here, retiree Jim Wilson sat in his GMC truck decorated bumper to bumper with Romney paraphernalia and American flags. Wilson, who lives outside Charlottesville, has been on the road since August, to each primary state except Colorado — and that’s only because he wanted to make it to Kansas in time. “That’s a bunch of horse apples,” he said when asked about Romney’s enthusiasm gap. “Look at this crowd,” he said, between puffs on his pipe.

True enough. Two hundred supporters filled the hall, with at least that many outside. “This is really something,” the candidate exulted to the overflow crowd in the parking lot.

But holding that enthusiasm has been, for Romney, quite a Rubik’s Cube. Inside, the candidate talked about health care, education, Iran, the economy — anything but children’s toys.

Although it was not particularly warm in the hall, Romney ended by saying that the temperature had “reached 140 in here” — and retreated while glaring at reporters shouting Etch a Sketch questions.

Realizing that he could not shake the queries, Romney returned a few minutes later for a “short Q&A,” known in the jargon as a “press avail.” It lasted 90 seconds.

“The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same,” he declared in response to an Etch a Sketch question. “I’m running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor.”

So he was a conservative when he enacted Romneycare?

“Can you guarantee to Republican voters that you won’t take more moderate positions?” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked.

“I answered the question,” Romney replied.

“An avail is more than one question, governor, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Acosta told him.

Romney grinned. “This wasn’t an avail. It was a chance to respond to a question I didn’t get a chance to respond to.”

Sounds sketchy.

danamilbank@washpost.com

For previous Washington Sketch columns, go to PostOpinions.com.