But Romney’s stumbles, if they continue, could jeopardize his party’s prospects down the ballot. Already, the GOP is facing a steeper climb in its efforts to retake the Senate and the prospect of losing seats in the House.
The latest controversy — over a leaked video in which Romney disparaged nearly half the country as Obama-supporting, government-dependent slackers — is at a minimum preventing his campaign from presenting a clear set of proposals for fixing the economy that it hoped would close the deal with the electorate.
“The challenge to the Romney campaign is how do you make the number one issue the number one issue,” said David Winston, a pollster who advises GOP congressional leaders. “Any day there are other things going on that do not allow them to make the number one issue the number one issue is not a good day for the campaign.”
The controversy has also afforded the Obama campaign an opening to reinforce its argument that Romney’s main interest is looking out for the wealthy, not the middle class.
“My expectation is that if you want to be president, you have to work for everyone, not just for some,” Obama said during a taping Tuesday of “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
But Obama also noted that presidential candidates slip up on the campaign trail. He expressed regret over an episode in 2008, in which a recording device caught Obama telling wealthy donors in San Francisco that some small-town Americans become bitter and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
Trouble down the ballot?
For Romney, the time and opportunities that remain to right things are short and few.
“The danger date for Romney is October 4, the day after the first and most important debate,” said one veteran GOP operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about Romney’s prospects. “And he needs to keep an eye on Capitol Hill, because members of Congress are always the first rats off the ship.”
Thus far, the phalanx of Republican forces — the party machinery, outside super PACs and grass-roots interest groups — remains in tight formation behind Romney.
But if it reaches the point where his campaign appears so damaged that it threatens the prospects of other Republicans on the ballot, that unity could be shattered. In late October 1996, for instance, the party publicly abandoned its efforts on behalf of nominee Robert J. Dole and began appealing to voters to elect Republicans to Congress as a counterweight to an inevitable second term for Bill Clinton.
Republicans began this election cycle with what appeared to be ample opportunity to regain a Senate majority. That would require winning four additional seats, or three plus the presidency, which would put vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan in the position of breaking a 50-50 tie.