“I don’t want to give them message advice,” said one Obama adviser, “but I think what’s hurt them most is they haven’t given voters any reason to vote for Romney. The question is: Is it too late?”
Romney advisers say in the coming weeks, there will be much greater effort at supplying answers to those questions.
In Ohio, Romney plans to try to build more support among blue-collar voters by raising the economic threat of China and highlighting his trade policies cracking down on the country for intellectual-property infringement and currency manipulation. Romney plans to hammer his message about China “cheating,” an aggressive stance his strategists believe will help him in Ohio and across the industrial Midwest.
Meanwhile, in Northern Virginia, a critical swing region of a key battleground state, Romney is trying to close a deficit with Obama among female voters by stressing debt and government spending issues. The campaign is airing an ad, “Dear Daughter,” featuring a mother talking to her newborn about her share of the federal debt, and advisers said similar ads are scheduled in the weeks to come.
‘Water is not muddy’
“It’s a very, very clear contrast,” said one Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely about strategy. “The water is not muddy on this. Obama has a worldview, and we’ve seen it through the first four years of his presidency, that every problem he encounters he solves by throwing more government money at it — whether it’s health care, whether it’s the stimulus, whether it’s the auto bailout.”
Romney’s advisers say they are not expecting an instant turnaround. “We’re going to stay on it and keep pounding it,” Gillespie said. “It may not be that it breaks through so much as it penetrates.”
Although Romney has raised huge amounts of money for the general election over the past few months, he was at a disadvantage throughout the summer because he was short on money that he could spend before he formally accepted the nomination at his convention in Tampa.
His campaign team also made the decision — questionable in the eyes of the Obama team — to spend no money on ads during either convention. They didn’t have the money to spend during the Republican convention and decided whatever they spent during the Democratic convention would be washed out by the media’s coverage of events in Charlotte. As a result, according to a Romney adviser, they were outspent, campaign vs. campaign, $18 million to zero during that two-week period.
But they argue that the Obama team failed during the summer to knock out Romney and that the fact that he is still standing is evidence that voters are still looking for reasons not to reelect Obama. “They wanted to settle the race by August,” Gillespie said. “It didn’t work.”
Obama advisers argue that was never their strategy. “That wasn’t the goal,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “The goal was to lay out a vision of where we want to take the country and to set up a choice, and that’s exactly what we did.”
The other obstacle Romney faces is a campaign environment in which small and trivial matters can often dominate the daily discussion. Romney advisers believe Obama’s campaign has been effective at feeding the media’s appetite for such controversies and they recognize that avoiding those distractions or swatting them away must be an essential part of their overall strategy if they want to draw contrasts with Obama on big issues.
That leaves Romney with a full plate and little time. There is only a small percentage of voters who haven’t made up their minds. Early voting starts in the battleground state of Iowa next week, and other swing states will follow in October, shrinking daily the available pool of voters who might respond to Romney’s message.
Romney’s advisers have drawn considerable criticism from within the Republican Party and now find themselves trying to sift through the chatter for good ideas coming from the outside while screening out the rest. But if they once thought the election would turn their way simply because of the state of the economy and the dissatisfaction with Obama, they now know they have to make a sale on Romney’s behalf. Said one Romney adviser, “We have to take it to the broader argument, and that’s what we’re doing.”