The latest example came Thursday, a day on which the Republican presidential front-runner had intended to talk about the federal debt. That message was largely lost as he found himself having to repudiate an attack against President Obama that had not happened — and one his campaign was not involved in planning.
The controversy surrounded a New York Times report that a group of political operatives had proposed a racially tinged $10 million ad campaign designed to resurrect a four-year-old controversy over inflammatory remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s former pastor.
“I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort,” Romney said at a news conference. “I think it’s the wrong course. . . . I hope that our campaigns can respectively be about the future and about issues and about a vision for America.”
Romney’s response was more forceful than it has been in other recent episodes, including when he did not challenge a supporter who declared at an Ohio rally this month that Obama “should be tried for treason” and when he declined to condemn radio host Rush Limbaugh for calling a Georgetown law student a “slut.”
Even when Romney manages to stick to his economic message, he must grapple with the fact that it will not necessarily be the dominant one that voters are hearing from the Republican Party.
Earlier this week, for instance, GOP congressional leaders conjured a flashback to one of the more disagreeable episodes of recent political history. In a speech Tuesday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) declared that Congress should see the need to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt limit — which the Treasury Department has said will be necessary early next year — as an opportunity to adopt major spending cuts and entitlement reforms.
Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.), one of Romney’s formal liaisons to Capitol Hill, said that any conversation about budgets and deficits by congressional Republicans helps Romney by highlighting Obama’s inability to cut the debt.
But he also said Boehner’s comments may have stepped on a potentially more powerful message for Romney: the Senate’s unanimous rejection of the president’s budget.
“I think we can all do a better job of making sure we’re all talking about the same issues, at the same time, using the same facts and figures, coordinating our efforts,” Johnson said.
Romney, however, has less power than presidential nominees once did to control the political narrative, largely because congressional Republicans have a greater role than they used to in shaping the party’s identity.
“The Republicans now see themselves as a congressionally based party, [although] having the presidency every once in a while is useful,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist.