Mitt Romney's low-profile strategyby BEN SMITH, politico.com
August 1st 2011 6:27 PM
Call it the Mittness Protection Program.
Through the hot summer of 2011, the front-runner for the Republican nomination has been in hiding.
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Romney was hit repeatedly by his opponents and the Democrats for refusing to offer an opinion on the debt deal until twelve hours after Congressional leaders accepted it – but that’s just been the most obvious example of a campaign that’s keeping the candidate far from the front lines and the headlines.
Romney has been missing from the fields of Iowa, swamps of South Carolina, beaches of Florida, and even the mountains near his summer home in New Hampshire – everywhere you’d expect a presidential candidate to go. Since his June 2 campaign launch, he’s done only about 24 public or semi-public events – an average of slightly more than one event every three days, or well below half the rate of Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. That includes just one last week. He has none scheduled for this week.
Those numbers, if anything, slightly exaggerate the time his campaign has devoted to retail appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Romney has been acting more as a full-time fundraiser and occasional candidate, and many of his stops — like the most recent two in Los Angeles and Ohio — are tacked on to his fundraising schedule.
This is hardly your traditional Rose Garden campaign, in which a strong incumbent or frontrunner molds politics to follow his non-political day job. Romney doesn’t currently hold office or any other job. But more importantly, he’s a Republican frontrunner of unprecedented weakness, and one whom the American people barely know. And while his advisers describe the decision as a strategic choice to pick only the big fights, it has obvious negative consequences: Romney’s identity remains hazy, voters remain unmet, and his rare appearances raise the stakes for gaffe free – or at least vaguely normal – performances.
“His strategy is clearly to play a lower profile so that he will draw less fire because he’s got a number of issues that he would rather not address,” said Mark Penn, who steered Hillary Clinton in similar waters in 2007. Clinton’s decision neither to fully engage nor withdraw from Iowa soured when her early, high poll numbers began sinking and Barack Obama’s relentless Iowa ground game began paying off.
“The tradeoff on that is if you’re not out there being the frontrunner, it makes it easier for other people to catch up and get some traction with the press and maybe you wind up not the frontrunner,” Penn said.
Indeed, Romney is allowing the year to wear on without establishing a clear public identity — the downside of a disciplined focus on engaging with President Obama, not his primary rivals, that keeps him largely out of the day-to-day media mix.
“When voters worry that a candidate may be all things to everyone, every day that candidate fails to cement his identity, he risks validating their concerns. Silence can be assent,” said Alex Castellanos, a 2008 Romney adviser who no longer supports the former Massachusetts governor. “More importantly, once the fight starts, Governor Romney will be forced to establish his identity in a more competitive climate. It’s a lot harder to keep your candle lit in a windstorm.”
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom disputed the premise of a question about Romney’s low profile, responding by emailing a list of 34 events since his federal PAC launched on April 11.
“We divide the candidate’s time between fundraising and public events,” Fehrnstrom said. “At this stage of the campaign, we feel we have struck the appropriate balance. We’re hitting our financial goals, and we’re continuing to show momentum on the political side as well.”
Romney’s absence has been particularly pronounced in the heat of the budget debate. His last event in either an early state or Washington, D.C. was on July 15.
Meanwhile, his forced regular-guy approach prompted a series of mocking stories, among them a column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank headlined, “A Day of Awkwardness with Mitt Romney.”
“His weirdness,” Milbank wrote, “comes through.”
Other outings have been marked by other gaffes, like his off-key remark about his employment status.
And the pressure on Romney to be more normal seems to increase at each of his rare outings — not exactly the formula for relaxed encounters.
His rivals and critics, meanwhile, are beginning to hone in on his calculated refusal to take risky political positions, driven by apparent concern for the general election and by a second-time candidate’s understanding of the rhythm of political cycles.
“There’s a difference between not chasing every ball, and not getting in the arena,” said a spokesman for one rival, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “In the ongoing battle of ideas for the future of America, Mitt Romney is a spectator with a record of cheering for both sides.”
Daily Caller blogger Matt Lewis put Romney’s face on a milk carton Monday, and the White House-allied Priorities USA released a memo portraying his reticence as weakness – early shots in what will likely be a long campaign to define him.
“Mitt Romney won’t show any leadership on the debt ceiling because he is more concerned with avoiding the ire of the Tea Party than preventing the first ever default on America’s obligations,” wrote Priorities USA’s Bill Burton. “While Romney has always been a political opportunist, this week demonstrates that even when America’s economy is at stake he doesn’t have the courage to stand up to the Tea Party.”
Romney’s sparse schedule, those close to the campaign say, is no accident. Romney soldiered through the shifting ground of 2009 and 2010 in part by avoiding exposure and picking his spots. As possible challengers rose and fell, he barely moved in the public eye or in the polls, where he has steadily drawn a plurality — never a majority — of Republican support.
Led by campaign manager Matt Rhoades, the Romney campaign is aiming to avoid what they see as the mistakes of 2008, when, as they say, he chased every ball, leaving the impression that he was an opportunist without clearly defining his core strength as a former executive and economic conservative. This time, he’s focusing almost solely on economic issues, and rebuffing efforts to drag him into social policy weeds, something that served him well when other candidates found themselves tangled in the over-reaching language of an Iowa group’s pledge.
They’re also seeking to avoid a drawn-out, bloody primary fight, and to compress the battle into a ferocious fall campaign.
“This is the political equivalent of playing six defensive backs in order to protect against a long pass. You sacrifice some ground in order to avoid a big mistake,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran California Republican who directs Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Schnur predicted that Texas Governor Rick Perry, if he enters the race, would force Romney to engage.
In the meantime, Castellanos said the wisdom of Romney’s strategy remains a question.
“If the campaign can amass superior resources, avoids being decimated by the front-runner destroying news media for a few months, and really believes there is no one out there who can fill the vacuum before Governor Romney does, then Colonel Prescott’s ‘hold your fire till you see the whites of their eyes’ strategy makes sense,” he said.
But to frustrated Republicans, Romney is also missing an opportunity to lead.
“Romney isn’t exactly sitting where George W. Bush was 10 years ago – he’s not nearly as strong a frontrunner as Bush was,” said Keith Appell, a conservative Republican strategist. “You’re running for president and there’s a golden opportunity for a challenger, given the economy, given the many failed initiatives of the Obama administration. It’s somewhat confusing as to why he’s playing it so close to the vest.”
Emily Schultheis contributed to this report.
Original Page: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/60444.html
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