Can Mitt Romney hit the reset button on presidential campaign?

March 24, 2012

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.

Romney’s misstatements, some taken out of context, have led to an image of a candidate out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans. The former governor has talked about friendships with NASCAR owners, rather than talking about the drivers or the fans. When he talks about the economy on the trail, he speaks about business owners and entrepreneurs he’s met along the way more than he does about workers.

Romney describes the world from the perspective of a CEO, not that of the ordinary voter. Given the problems Obama has with white, working-class voters, Romney will win more of their support than the president. But Romney may have to work harder than the Republican nominee should to hold his share or enlarge it to offset the reality that the 2012 electorate will have a smaller share of white voters than in 2008.

So no, there is no wiping the slate clean of all that. But from the perspective of Romney’s advisers, those factors are not all that the campaign will be about. They see the general election much differently. The fall campaign, they say, will not be decided by Etch a Sketch gaffes or some of the questions about Romney that have dominated the primary season debate.

Instead, they believe the race will be framed by several broad realities: a president whose approval rating is below 50 percent, despite an improving economy; a country still traumatized by the economic collapse of 2008; and an electorate polarized by the president and his record.

Economic indicators may be pointing up, but Romney advisers believe many voters are still reeling from the effects of the recession. Those voters, they say, lack confidence about the future, have doubts about the president’s leadership and policies, and in the end will not be swayed by a message that things could have been worse if there is a credible alternative put forward.

In the same sentence in which he mentioned Etch a Sketch, Fehrnstrom talked about a reset moment for the campaign once the primaries end. That is a more apt description of what is coming. The Etch a Sketch moment has made it all the more difficult for Romney to try to undo some of what he’s done in the primaries. He can’t afford another replay of flip-flop.

But if Romney has his way, the shift from the nomination battle to the general election will be a moment of restating first principles, not a wholesale pivot back to the center. There are several touchstones that provide a guide to what he hopes to do in a general election. One is the speech he gave last summer when he announced his candidacy. Others are speeches he has given on the nights when he has won impressive primary victories, such as in Florida and last week in Illinois. In all of those cases, Romney’s message focused on the economy, on the size and shape of the federal government and on the president.

That’s the campaign Romney has wanted to run from the time he started looking seriously at a 2012 candidacy. He has been knocked off stride by his opponents, by the conservatism of his party and by his own hand. He needs a reset moment and no doubt will get it. But will Romney be ready and able when that moment comes?

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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