Defining moment eludes Mitt Romney
By: Ginger Gibson
September 29, 2012 04:05 PM EST
Mitt Romney could use a big moment.
Since he began stumping, the GOP presidential nominee’s campaign events have been nearly identical — perfectly staged and choreographed, but forgettable. If it weren’t for the occasional state flag hanging behind him, those watching wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the GOP nominee’s rallies in Pueblo, Colo. and Vandalia, Ohio.
But as Romney tries to reignite his campaign following a slew of polling showing him trailing President Barack Obama, some Republican strategists argue that he should stage a dramatic campaign trail moment designed to break through the clutter and move the needle.
GOP strategists point to the campaign equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s 1987 declaration before the Berlin wall, where he challenged the Russian leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Suggestions include a Romney appearance at the Keystone XL pipeline to pound his energy strategy, and to do more unscheduled stops in diners or other local haunts like the Florida Obama visit that resulted in the president being lifted off the ground in a bear hug.
“Go to a location where the Keystone pipeline was to be built, and with unemployed workers as part of the event, look into the camera and say, ‘Mr. Obama, build this pipeline,’” said Republican strategist Greg Mueller said. “This hits the jobs issue and directly connects Obama to blocking jobs, preventing economic growth and holding back energy independence.”
There are some advantages to staged, even slightly dull campaign rallies. The campaign doesn’t want to make any mistakes, and Romney — not the most polished candidate on the stump — certainly doesn’t want to put his foot in his mouth, which he has done on more than one occasion. Pulling off gaffe-free events that energize supporters and look good on television is no small feat.
But some GOP strategists say it’s well past time for the Romney campaign to play it safe, and he needs to take some chances. They argue that a dramatic rally or unexpected moment would help replace some of the negative imagery that is currently flooding voters’ homes, including Democratic ads regarding Romney’s remarks behind closed doors about 47 percent of Americans being dependent on the government.
“They’re in cookie-cutter mode,” said one GOP strategist. “They’ve got the same people, doing the same thing they’ve been doing for eight years and there is no creativity.”
“Forget the fear, forget the fundraisers, forget the polls, get out there and really run for president,” advised another GOP strategist, who didn’t want to give their name because of the sensitivity of the matter. “Get rid of all that staging. Be real. … something dramatically real.”
On Romney’s last major outing — a four-stop bus tour through Ohio — the rallies were similar to many previous ones.
The campaign has perfected making picturesque scenes. But every stop was not only identical, it mirrored nearly every campaign stop for the past several months: An oversized American flag placed for optimal photography images, a blue sign declaring his dedication to the middle class and a compilation of his favorite talking points.
There was not a defining moment, an image or stump speech riff that could distinguish the tour. He barely spoke about Ohio, except for the occasional reference to their military industry.
“If voters are waiting for Romney to give us ‘a moment,’ I’m afraid we are in store for a lot of waiting,” said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, who worked for John McCain in 2008 and Jon Huntsman during the 2012 primary. “His campaign events look a lot like the Republican convention, safe, staged and repetitive and you can almost invariably count on the row of women or black or brown people strategically placed in the audience.”
Navarro said Romney’s events don’t have to come packed with excitement, but the crowds are large and the enthusiasm palpable, good signs for Republicans. And she pointed out that Obama isn’t replicating his 2008 crowd sizes or stellar oratory.
“Romney is a solid candidate who is formal in his demeanor, somewhat socially awkward and who is not extraordinarily gifted in delivering soaring rhetoric,” she said. “The campaign events are an accurate reflection of Romney, predictably steady, running like clockwork, consistent, on script and on message.”
She added that voters may not be concerned about Romney creating that “moment.”
“The media may not like it because he doesn’t provide great footage or sound bites, but the average voter understands that it’s part of the contrast with the Obama from four years ago,” Navarro said.
Rarely does Romney’s campaign try to tie his message and any kind of imagery together, however.
During the Ohio bus tour, a running “debt clock” made a return to the stage with Romney. It’s an image he’s used frequently before and an identical concept was used at the Republican National Convention, not the kind of flashy prop that typically draws attention to a talking point.
While in Hobbs, N.M., in August, Romney gave an energy speech with a towering crane in the background. But the speech, which rambled at times, included a chart that could be seen by the audience and failed to clearly articulate new positions, didn’t provide the kind of dramatic moment his campaign could look back at. At an August speech in Greer, S.C., in which he tried to lay out the policy consequences of failing to reform Medicare, Romney did appear with a whiteboard, writing on it with shirt-sleeves rolled up and a marker.
Mueller applauded the ability of the Romney campaign to draw crowds to his rallies, but said there is still something lacking.
“A next elevation of the campaign would be to illustrate just how Obama’s policies are harming Americans and preventing economic growth and job opportunities and showing how Romney will be the difference,” he said. “This is best done with visuals and a look into the camera that bangs home a message that resonates.”
Appearing with out-of-work families in the Midwest could also soften Romney’s image, Mueller added.
“It also helps the governor deflect the rich-guy image the Obama camp has painted on him by clearly illustrating how Gov. Romney’s policies are going to work for working people,” Mueller said.
Unlike most of his bus tours, Romney didn’t fly from stop-to-stop in Ohio on his visit this week, swooping into a town and then flying out to the next.
He rode his campaign bus for more than 330 miles, but he didn’t pull over once for a single unannounced stop at a dinner or popular small-town spot.
It’s the kind of retail campaigning that produces the human interactions that feed news coverage and humanize the candidate. Campaigns plan the stops long in advance, but without notifying the public (and sometimes the press) they give the candidates the opportunity to surprise unsuspecting and, occasionally, undecided voters.
“Instead of you building an event and making them come to you, every local community has a place,” said Chip Saltsman, Mike Huckabee former campaign manager. “You can go to the town square and get a cheeseburger where everyone goes to lunch.”
Obama frequently makes unannounced pit stops while on the campaign trail and has reaped the benefits of getting off the bus and pressing the flesh at a dinner or pizza joint.
While campaigning in Florida, Obama stopped at a pizza parlor where the owner picked the president up in a bear hug that lifted him off the ground. The image of the embrace ricocheted across the Internet.
But Romney rarely engages in that kind of retail campaigning.
The closest Romney came while touring Ohio was when he crossed the tarmac where his campaign plane was parked to shake hands with a group of World War II and Korean War veterans who were exiting the plane from a “Honor Flight” they had taken that day to Washington.
On the dark tarmac, the national press that travels with Romney snapped a few photos. But none of the local television reporters or newspapers were still on site, so the GOP nominee lost the benefit of appearing with locals for the local audience.
Romney also sticks close to the big media markets.
In his cross-Ohio bus tour, he visited the suburbs of Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland. And he went smack into the heart of downtown Toledo, a heavily Democratic area.
But doing so misses the optics of exciting crowds in smaller areas, some of which will draw even undecided voters who will be lured by the novelty of a visiting candidate, Saltsman said.
“Don’t be afraid to go do the small events in the small counties,” warned Saltsman. “An event in the smaller towns in Ohio is going to get bigger turnout and mean more to the bottom line than going to where the big markets are.”
He said focusing on the little pieces could have a bigger impact.
“Get small and get local, that takes more time,” Saltsman said. “Time is obviously working against us.”