The real test is how he responds. The history of campaigning suggests that, at such moments, much more depends on the candidate’s performance than that of his team. It is a leadership test in real time. What he says and does on the trail in the coming days and, far more important, how he conducts himself in the first presidential debate should answer that question.
The latest heartburn for the Romney team came Monday with the release of a leaked video of the candidate at a fundraiser claiming that he’ll never win the support of 47 percent of the electorate because they are dependent on government and can’t be persuaded that “they should take personal responsibility for their lives.”
That came after another setback on Sunday night, when Politico reported on the chaotic process of writing the candidate’s acceptance speech for the Republican convention and aired criticism—none of it on the record—of chief strategist Stuart Stevens. To most voters, this is inside baseball. But it was the kind of story that often appears when things are at their worst and most stressful inside a campaign.
Veterans of past campaigns know what the Romney team is feeling. Mark McKinnon, who was George W. Bush’s chief media strategist, said the Bush campaign went through the same thing in 2000. “We called it Black September,” he said. “Everything went to [pieces]. Everybody was saying we should be fired. It’s eerily similar.”
Four years ago, Obama’s campaign was under fire in the weeks after the two political conventions ended. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP nominee, whose campaign received a boost by the selection of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, overtook Obama in the polls.
Democrats were pounding on the Obama team, so much so that campaign manager David Plouffe dismissed as “hand-wringing and bed-wetting” the complaints coming from fellow Democrats. Obama was concerned enough about what was happening that he called a meeting of his senior advisers on a Sunday night and told them to step up their game.
The next day, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, triggering the economic collapse and sealing McCain’s fate. Before the end of the campaign, McCain’s operation was a house divided, bitterly airing its differences in public even before the polls had closed on Election Day.
This year, it’s unlikely that Romney can count on some unexpected event like the economic collapse of 2008 to deliver the White House. But should he need that kind of help? He already has what many Republicans regard as a golden opportunity to defeat an incumbent. With the economy still in trouble and the Middle East awash in protests, Republicans wonder why Romney isn’t in a more secure position with seven weeks left in the campaign.
Tad Devine remembers similar periods of outside criticism and internal duress in two Democratic campaigns in which he played senior roles: Al Gore’s 2000 election bid and John F. Kerry’s 2004 race. He sees only one path for Romney. “He’s the only guy who can save his campaign right now,” Devine said. “He can have different people in different decision-making capacities. But he’s the only guy who can make this work.”
This isn’t the first time Romney’s campaign has come under criticism. There were quiet calls for staff changes during the primaries and later complaints about the team’s operations from notable business leaders such as News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Jack Welch, a former chief executive of General Electric.