To beat a sitting president, you first have to chase him around the country.
At least that’s the operating theory at Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters, where aides are unleashing a new strategy to combat President Obama at his campaign stops and to even adopt Obama’s itinerary as their own.
With the general election campaign in full swing, the presumptive Republican nominee plans to stage “prebuttal” and “rebuttal” speeches to Obama designed to try to force the president on the defensive.
Romney’s effort begins Wednesday, when he jets to Charlotte, which hosts the Democratic National Convention in September. Romney booked a rooftop venue with views of Bank of America Stadium — where Obama will formally accept his party’s nomination for reelection — to deliver what aides are billing as a prebuttal to Obama’s nomination speech.
Aides said Romney’s message will boil down to this: “Are you better off than you were four years ago, the last time Obama gave a convention speech?”
Also Wednesday, during Obama’s scheduled stop in Ohio, Romney’s campaign bus will be loaded up with state surrogates and local phone bank volunteers, and will drive circles around the Elyria community college where Obama is scheduled to deliver remarks on the economy. And aides said Romney is considering going to Ohio on Thursday to give his own speech on the economy.
This strategy, which campaign operatives call “bracketing,” is not new in presidential politics — or in the 2012 race.
Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee have been dogging Romney for months by putting local surrogates on conference calls with reporters pegged to Romney’s campaign stops. In February in Detroit, as Romney gave a speech at Ford Field, the DNC gathered a group of unionized autoworkers to spell out “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” atop car windshields on the roof of a nearby parking garage.
But by involving the candidate himself and his logo bus, the Romney team’s bracketing is particularly audacious and establishes a confrontational tone at the start of the general-election campaign.
“Our campaign is going to go toe to toe and post up against the Obama machine every day to help get the message out that Mitt Romney will be able to deliver what this president could not — and that’s a more-prosperous America,” said Gail Gitcho, communications director for the Romney campaign.
Romney’s aides hope to show Republicans that after a bruising and exhausting primary campaign, his team is taking on Obama immediately and aggressively. But with the bracketing efforts, Romney risks appearing as if he is resorting to campaign gimmicks by nipping at the president’s ankles.
“The Romney campaign’s strategy is clear: they will go to every end to distort the President’s record and policies because they know that voters will not elect Mitt Romney on his own merits,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in an e-mail.
Romney aides acknowledge the difficulty of taking on the incumbent and believe that to win in November, they not only have to articulate a broad vision but also have to win short news cycles.
The campaign made an early play in the summer. When Air Force One touched down in Philadelphia to ferry Obama to two fundraisers, Romney staged an event about 70 miles north in Allentown, Pa., to assail the president’s stewardship of the nation’s job market. The Republican spoke at Allentown Metal Works, a steel plant that Obama touted as a symbol of the country’s manufacturing might in a 2009 visit to promote his economic stimulus bill.
But by Romney’s 2011 visit, the plant was shuttered, having laid off its workers. Romney, standing in front of a locked fence with weeds and boarded-up windows behind him, called the plant evidence that Obama’s policies “ain’t working.”
Through the primary season, the Romney campaign thrived when it was on the offensive — pounding away at inconsistencies in opponents’ records or digging up damaging dirt from their backgrounds. And at crucial moments, Romney has relied on bracketing to throw his opponents off message.
In Wisconsin recently, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams chased Rick Santorum from event to event saying negative things to reporters. Santorum grew so irritated that at the rope line of one event, he accused Williams of feeding lines to reporters.
Last week, as Romney pivoted to the general election, he dispatched his bus to New Hampshire, where it drove laps around the Exeter Town Hall where Vice President Biden was giving a speech. Outside, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a bulldog surrogate for Romney, held an impromptu news conference. And the next morning, the Union Leader, the state’s largest paper, published a photo of Romney’s bus and put Sununu in the headline with Biden.
For the general election, dogging Obama at his events will now be part of Williams’s portfolio. “We’re going to be doing this all across the country, and this is a consistent effort that will go on between now and Election Day,” Williams said.
The strategy is orchestrated by Gitcho, who ran the Republican National Committee’s press shop the first year of the Obama administration and is regarded as one of the GOP’s most effective bracketing specialists.
But as Gitcho knows, bracketing works only if it’s effective — getting in the head of the opponent or amplifying a message that hurts his campaign.
“The Obama campaign is big. They are a massive machine,” Gitcho said. But, she said, “the Romney campaign is going to be doing very big things in very big states.”