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.
Where George W. Bush in his 2000 presidential campaign had the liberty to treat congressional Republicans as an occasional foil — for instance, accusing them of trying “to balance the budget on the backs of the poor” — Romney has had to follow their lead on many issues. This includes his endorsement of a plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that would, among other things, transform the Medicare program.
“If Romney is president, he will sign a bill that looks very much like Ryan, and we will call it ‘the Romney revolution,’ ” Norquist said.
And because of a weakening of campaign finance laws, well-funded outside groups can raise issues and drive messages that the candidate would prefer to avoid.
The advertising campaign proposed by a group of operatives — led by Republican consultant Fred Davis — was out of bounds, even in today’s brutal political climate. It referred to Obama as “the metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln” and said that his former association with Wright is “a phenomenally powerful argument that’s never been properly exploited.”
That relationship became a major topic in the 2008 campaign, when it was revealed that Obama’s longtime pastor had a history of making inflammatory statements, including a declaration that the United States had brought upon itself the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama not only distanced himself from the Chicago clergyman but also gave a major address on race in which he said that Wright’s views “denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation” and “rightly offend white and black alike.”
The proposal to revive the issue was denounced from many quarters — including brokerage-firm founder Joe Ricketts, who the political consultants had hoped would bankroll it.
“It reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take,” Ricketts’s super PAC, Ending Spending Action, said in a statement.
It added that “Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a President this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”
Obama’s campaign quickly responded with a mass fundraising appeal, warning supporters: “This is going to be worse than we could have imagined. President Obama needs your help to stop it before it starts.”
Davis did not respond to a request for comment.
A complicating factor for Romney is that he is not the most adept or agile of politicians.
When a reporter on Thursday cited a February interview in which he suggested that Wright had helped shape Obama’s worldview, the former Massachusetts governor replied awkwardly: “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”
Romney’s campaign officials insisted that neither they nor voters are being thrown off stride.
“This race is always going to be about one thing,” the future of the economy, Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said. “We’re going to be held responsible for the campaign we do run, not the campaign we don’t run. And we hope the Obama campaign will be held responsible for the campaign they are running.”
Polls suggest that voters still don’t have a clear idea of what Romney stands for.
So it was probably no accident that, as the likely GOP nominee was preparing to go onstage Thursday at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., the song that the campaign chose to warm up the crowd was the Elvis Presley classic “A Little Less Conversation.”
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.