BOSTON — After one of their worst weeks of the general election campaign, Mitt Romney and his advisers are scrambling to refocus their message and make up ground lost to President Barack Obama in several battleground states.
The mood around Romney’s Boston campaign headquarters with just over six weeks until Election Day is defiantly upbeat in the face of a series of setbacks. “Given everything we’ve gone through, everybody wants to count this guy out,” said Neil Newhouse, Romney campaign’s pollster. “And yet the poll numbers don’t do that. The poll numbers put him right in the middle of this.”
Romney brushed aside questions about the state of his campaign in an interview scheduled to air Sunday on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.” Asked by anchor Scott Pelley how he planned to turn around his campaign, Romney responded: “Well, it doesn’t need a turnaround. We’ve got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president [of] the United States.”
But the sensibility in Boston is also decidedly realistic. Some Romney advisers acknowledge that the burden is on the candidate and those around him to quiet doubters inside their own party and elsewhere, and to demonstrate that they have a compelling message, along with a strategy and the discipline to execute it.
The coming week will test whether Romney’s campaign can do something they’ve struggled with for many weeks, which is to deliver a coherent and sustained message across every possible platform — in their paid advertising, in what the candidate and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, say on the campaign trail, in the digital world that now helps shape the conversation, and through the many surrogates used to spread and amplify that message.
Then comes the next test, which is the first of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. Advisers to both candidates see the Oct. 3 debate in Denver as the best opportunity for Romney to force a shift in the campaign’s dynamic, which has been running against the GOP nominee for the past three weeks.
Romney advisers now interpret the state of the race from two somewhat contradictory perspectives. On the one hand, they see national tracking polls that a week ago showed Obama in the lead immediately after his convention but that tightened dramatically after that. Other national polls give Obama a lead.
The other view of the race comes from recent polls in the battleground states that consistently show Romney running behind. Especially troubling are Obama’s narrow leads in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, all vital to Romney’s chances of winning. If presidential campaigns are really a series of state-by-state contests, Romney’s path to 270 electoral votes is far more problematic than Obama’s at this moment.
But Romney advisers see a rush to judgment about the state of the campaign by pundits and commentators, and they dismiss suggestions that the campaign has taken a decisive turn. That view is shared in Chicago among Obama’s top advisers, who believe they are in a stronger position than Romney but who expect the race to be close and hard-fought until November.
“I’m realistic that Romney’s had a couple of bad weeks, but there’s lots of time for him to recover,” said a senior Obama adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to offer an assessment of the race.
Romney advisers acknowledge two potentially significant developments during the Democratic convention that boosted the president’s standing, which, if they persist, could make the challenger’s path to victory more difficult.
One was a rise in enthusiasm among Democrats, who now appear as energized as Republicans. If that holds, it could change the calculus on who is likely to turn out between now and Nov. 6 in ways detrimental to Romney. Both campaigns say their get-out-the-vote machinery is ready to produce maximum turnout among their supporters.
More worrisome to Romney and the Republicans is what appears to be an unexpected shift in the public mood since the two parties completed their conventions. Although still negative overall about the direction of the country, more Americans now say things are moving in the right direction and more express optimism about the future of the economy.
Romney’s advisers, like their counterparts at Obama headquarters in Chicago, are closely monitoring these attitude shifts, admitting that they aren’t certain what caused them or whether they will last until November. “I think that was something they were successful with at their convention, changing the narrative a little bit about things getting better,” said Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie. “I don’t know if they can sustain that in the face of economic reality.”
Two weeks ago, Romney’s campaign was set back over a controversy about how he responded to protests in Egypt and the subsequent killing of four Americans in Libya. Romney advisers were frustrated that a succession of economic reports, all of which could be used to portray Obama’s economic record as a failure, were washed away.
They included reports about the rising deficit, the poverty rate (which did not go down), manufacturing jobs (which fell) and the Federal Reserve’s announcement that the economy would need sizable and indefinite help to create more jobs.
To Romney’s team, this was a further sign that the fundamentals of the race leave the president in a vulnerable position — if only Romney can capitalize on those fundamentals more effectively than he has so far. That means Romney and Ryan may have to do more than they’ve been doing to remind voters of the current economic conditions, even as they try to explain what they would do if elected.
Romney advisers say they have a message plan — and the target audiences they need to attract — and will start to roll it out in the coming days. They tried to do this a week ago but were forced to spend most of the week explaining comments by Romney at a spring fundraiser, captured surreptitiously on video, in which he said the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes consider themselves victims and believe they are entitled to government support.
On Friday, Romney released hundreds of pages of his 2011 tax filings, with his campaign hoping the disclosure would finally quiet months of political controversy over his personal finances. He paid $1.9 million in taxes on $13.69 million in income, most of it from his investments, for an effective rate of 14.1 percent, according to his returns. The Obama campaign said the financials paint an incomplete picture of the wealth he amassed at Bain Capital.
Romney has tried any number of ways to elevate the campaign dialogue to his advantage, drawing a contrast between what he calls the government-centered worldview of the president and his vision for an opportunity society. But so far he’s had trouble for two reasons. He hasn’t found a consistent way to frame that contrast and he’s been distracted, or allowed himself to be distracted, by small controversies and chaff thrown up by the opposition.
“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.
“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.”