It is easy to understand why last week’s Etch a Sketch moment was described as the perfect metaphor for a presidential candidate who has struggled to answer the question of who he is and what he believes. It was a gaffe that fed a stereotype that shapes the political image of Mitt Romney.
But lost amid all the fevered commentary and the din of tweets is the reality that sometime in the next few months, when the general election campaign starts in earnest, the public will take a relatively fresh look at what almost certainly will be a choice between the former Massachusetts governor and President Obama.
Advisers to the president now see their likely rival as having suffered potentially permanent damage from a campaign in which he has had to run to the right to win acceptance from his party’s conservative base. Romney’s advisers believe otherwise. They see any damage as overstated. They believe the president has vulnerabilities that have been largely ignored by the media while the Republicans have been on center stage. And they say that will change once the nomination battle ends.
Defining the terms of the general election is the coming competition. The past will not be swept away, as Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom seemed to be suggesting with his careless reference to the children’s toy that has become a campaign trail prop for Romney’s rivals. The record Romney has created during his long run for the nomination will be an important part of the backdrop for the fall, no matter how hard his campaign tries to shake up the landscape.
But by summer, the campaign conversation could sound different than it does today. The outcome in November surely will be affected by daily machinations and tactical moves and the instantaneous analysis and chatter that surround them. But it will be influenced more heavily by fundamentals — the state of the economy, the president’s approval rating, the deep and often rigid demographic lines that define red-blue politics. Moving those voters at the margins will be the challenge for Obama and Romney.
The way it looks now, Romney will have repair work to do to strengthen his appeal to some voters who may have been turned off by the GOP nomination campaign. The most significant could be Hispanics, whose votes will be critical in a number of the states that the Republicans will need to win back. Through the many GOP debates, Romney went more than the extra mile to run to the right of his opponents on the issue of immigration.
He denounced Texas Gov. Rick Perry for championing a law that provided in-state college tuition to resident children of illegal immigrants. He attacked former House speaker Newt Gingrich for suggesting that illegal immigrants who have been in the country for a quarter-century or more and have put down community roots should be allowed to stay as legal residents. He talked about “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants and described Arizona’s controversial immigration law as “a model for the nation.”
Romney’s Republican Party colleagues have complicated their eventual nominee’s efforts to win more votes of women, particularly suburban women, by extending the debate over Obama’s initial contraception policy and allowing it to turn into a conversation about women’s rights as much as religious liberty. The fact that Ann Romney recently began linking the economy to the concerns and worries of women shows that the campaign is sensitized to the need to find a way to talk to female voters about economic rather than social issues.