COSTA MESA, Calif. — Nine hundred of Mitt Romney’s biggest benefactors — from Wall Street traders to hedge fund managers — gathered in a ballroom in Midtown Manhattan on Friday morning to send their candidate on the two-month sprint to Election Day.
Spencer Zwick, the campaign’s national finance chairman and a longtime Romney loyalist, took to the lectern to boast: “It is really turning into a cause. The momentum continues.”
But the donors, being data guys, knew that Romney’s momentum had stalled. And when they looked up at the Jumbotron to watch a biographical video showing the GOP nominee as warm-hearted, frugal and even a bit goofy, it was the culmination of much of what Republicans say is wrong with the Romney campaign: There is a great story to be told, and it isn’t being shared with the country.
Now, with 49 days left until the election, Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, is being accused of not defining the candidate quickly enough over the summer and not helping the sometimes awkward nominee forge a closer bond with voters. Republicans are increasingly frustrated with the campaign’s inability to capitalize on Americans’ anxiety about the economy and their lukewarm approval of President Obama.
Romney faced another distraction Monday, as Mother Jones magazine unearthed a video that it said showed the candidate speaking at a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. In the video, Romney says that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent on government” and that they think “they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Romney adds that his job “is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
On Monday night, just before a fundraiser in Costa Mesa where donors gave up to $50,000 per person, Romney hastily called a news conference to address the controversy. He stood by his remarks, although he conceded that they were “not elegantly stated” and that he had been “speaking off the cuff in response to a question.”
Romney said his comments underscored the contrast between Obama’s “government-centered society” and his own “free-people, free-enterprise, free-market, consumer-driven approach.”
Earlier Monday, advisers, donors and other top Romney supporters depicted a campaign in turmoil, saying that a series of strategic errors have set back the effort.
They pointed to the decision not to aggressively combat the slew of television ads that the Obama campaign aired over the summer characterizing Romney as a ruthless technocrat who shipped jobs overseas during his time at Bain Capital and who has mysterious foreign investments. They also said the candidate’s overseas trip in July, which some top advisers urged him not to take, turned into such a mess that it jeopardized his credentials.
Furthermore, supporters said the Republican National Convention was a missed opportunity because Romney did not lay out a clear policy-driven vision and because the lauded biographical video was scrapped from prime time in favor of Clint Eastwood’s performance, which featured an empty chair.
Despite the griping, Romney aides insisted that no shake-up was in the works. Stevens declined to comment on the record. Advisers and fundraisers close to the operation said it is highly unlikely that Romney will replace him. “He’s not changing horses,” one said.
Publicly, Romney is trying to look past the reports of infighting. In an interview with Telemundo, he stood by Stevens and his other advisers. “I’ve got a terrific campaign,” he said. “My senior campaign people work extraordinarily well together. I work well with them. Our campaign is doing well.” Asked if there would be changes in his team, Romney said, “No, I’ve got a good team.”
Romney’s Boston-based operation tried to begin a messaging reboot on Monday, shifting strategy to provide more details of his economic plan in speeches by the nominee and in ads over the next two weeks in the hopes of giving voters a clearer understanding of what he would do as president.
“That’s where Governor Romney’s focus is and that’s where every single staffer and volunteer across the country has trained their focus,” senior adviser Kevin Madden said. “The economy and the overall direction of the country are the things that matter to voters.”
In the face of fresh polls showing Romney trailing Obama in some critical battleground states, and losing his lead nationally on the economy and on the issues of tax reform and deficit reduction, the campaign has been trying to reassure supporters.
Last week, aides briefed Republican members of Congress on the race, hoping to quiet any public complaining by lawmakers. On Monday morning, aides organized a conference call with top donors to try to calm any anxieties about the campaign and plan to make a follow-up call Tuesday morning, according to a campaign fundraiser.
In addition, the fundraiser said, the campaign is allowing some top donors to dial in to daily conference calls with staff members so they can keep up with the strategy.
This is partly a response to criticism from some of Romney’s biggest fundraisers that his advisers, particularly Stevens, were not giving them enough attention and updates.
A few hours before Romney delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he and his wife, Ann, met privately with the campaign’s top 100 fundraisers. They greeted them one by one, thanking them and posing for pictures, recalled one fundraiser who was in the room.
But that attention seemed to disappear the following week. After Obama opened a lead in polls coming out of the Democratic National Convention, the fundraiser said, Stevens and other advisers went into “scramble mode” and “internal lockdown.”
This fundraiser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said donors “sort of feel that they’re not getting any feedback or any touchy-feely from Stu Stevens. He doesn’t pay the donors any lip service. It’s like, ‘You’re writing a check so you can get your picture taken with Mitt Romney . . . but I don’t need to tell you anything about what we’re doing.’ ”
Other donors and advisers said a pivotal point occurred early this summer, when Obama launched an advertising onslaught against the GOP nominee, and Romney’s campaign did not respond forcefully.
“They erred by not spending very aggressively in the summer to combat the negative ads,” said one campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They felt they didn’t need to because people weren’t paying attention. There was some statistical empirical evidence that people were not paying attention. But some of [Obama’s ads] worked and threw them on defense.”
Although the team was raising money at a ferocious clip all summer, it was constrained by campaign finance laws requiring that much of that money be spent only after Romney was officially nominated.
In late August, Romney’s ad gurus took on the task of defining their candidate. They produced a powerful video for the GOP convention, revealing Romney’s emotion and humanity. Yet the video was scrapped from the prime-time lineup, and the campaign has not aired parts of it in its commercials.
When donors in New York saw the video last week, they responded with a standing ovation. Then, according to one top bundler who was at the event, some of them asked, “Why aren’t we pushing this film more?”
The frustrated donors, according to the bundler, asked: “What’s up with you guys? Why isn’t that video being mainstreamed into the campaign?”
Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.