WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney, almost since the moment he announced for president, has oriented his campaign around a singular issue: the economy, and President Obama’s handling of it.
But with just 49 days remaining in the presidential race, Romney’s campaign has been attempting to broaden out to many other issues – ranging from the role of God in society to foreign policy to immigration – in a way that threatens to dilute what they have long claimed as their core message.
The effort comes as the Romney campaign faces the most challenging stretch it has faced so far, one that is testing inner-campaign loyalties, message discipline, and its ability to react to spontaneous events.
Recent polls have shown Romney trailing both nationally and in key swing states—even that voters now trust President Obama as much as they do Romney in handling the economy. Top Romney campaign advisers concede that they have failed to communicate their core positions in a way that resonates with the electorate, or to showcase a clear message for why Romney should be elected.
“I’m not sure that voters really understand the differences between the plans that Romney has and Obama has,” Neil Newhouse, Romney’s chief pollster, said Monday on a conference call with reporters. “And I think that’s one thing we’re committed to trying to do moving forward is defining the differences between the two candidates on taxes.”
For a candidate who has a 59-point economic plan – and who lists 64 “action steps” in his book, “No Apology” – a concession that voters don’t know his positions is a fairly striking admission, following two years of campaigning and a three-day convention devoted to telling people what Romney is about.
Romney plans to begin highlighting specifics more, his advisers suggest, but it is unclear how much will be new and how much will be repackaged policies that he’s rolled out previously, which have been criticized even by Republicans for not going far enough.
“We’re not rolling out new policy so much as we are making sure people understand that when we say we can do these things, here’s how we are going to get them done and these are the specifics,” Ed Gillespie, a top Romney adviser, said on the conference call.
Romney’s messages over the past two weeks – a key period after the party conventions, and in the lead-up to the start of early voting – has felt lurching at times, jumping around to different topics. A week and a half ago, he mentioned the “under God” portion of the Pledge of Allegiance and said, “I will not take God out of the name of our platform. I will not take God off our coins. And I will not take God out of my heart.”
At 10:30 p.m. last Tuesday and before all the facts were known, Romney raced to criticize President Obama’s handling of attacks on the Egyptian embassy and a Libyan consulate. A candidate who has been marked by caution and planning came across as knee-jerk and reactive at a moment of American crisis. Real differences he had with the incumbent were overshadowed by his response, and he seemed to miss an opportunity to highlight a shifting foreign policy approach and put President Obama on the defensive.
Romney on Monday is addressing a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles, renewing his focus on immigration. On Wednesday, he’ll be addressing a Univision forum where a large focus will be on immigration. Next week, he’ll talk education during an NBC forum and plans to highlight his plans for Medicare during an AARP forum and foreign policy at the Clinton Global Initiative. His latest ads highlight trade policies with China.
Some of those forums – and some of the ads – do highlight issues related to the economy, but not as sharply as he had done earlier in the campaign when both he and his campaign argued that the election was a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy.
In April, when it became clear that he would be the nominee, Romney delivered a speech in Manchester, N.H., in which he said he was launching “the start of a new campaign” that would be aimed directly at President Obama. In a line meant to be one of the most memorable from the speech, Romney declared, “It’s still about the economy, and we’re not stupid.”
A month later, when he officially got the number of delegates he needed to clinch the nomination, his staff gathered for a celebration in Boston with hats that had “The Long Slog” stitched on.
“The focus is going to stay, as it has been, on jobs and the economy,” campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said at the time. “That’s what compelled Governor Romney to get in the race. That’s why he’s running.”
Romney’s current campaign appears to be at risk of repeating the same mistakes that hampered his 2008 race. During that campaign, competing factions led to an internal war where disagreements festered over how much to focus on social issues, and how much attention should be given to Romney’s economic know-how.
Romney acknowledged his major mistake after the 2008 campaign was allowing himself to be distracted, and not getting across to the electorate what his core mission was. It was a feeling he also had after his 1994 Senate race.
“I think that one of the things that’s very important in running a campaign is to make sure that you’re known for the things that really motivate you,” he told reporters in 2010. “And I needed to do a better job to focus my campaign on the economy and getting the economy right and creating jobs. And whether through my ads or through my responses to debate questions or on the stump, my power alley is the economy.”