Mitt Romney’s State House counter-rally shows campaign’s nimbleness to date

Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod stops to shake a protester's hand as he leaves a news conference at the Massachusetts State House on Thursday.
Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod stops to shake a protester's hand as he leaves a news conference at the Massachusetts State House on Thursday.
Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Polls already show that President Obama is destined to win Massachusetts handily this fall, but Mitt Romney’s team showed Thursday that it won’t allow insult on top of that political injury.

When word leaked Wednesday afternoon that senior Obama strategist David Axelrod was coming to the State House on Thursday morning to criticize Romney’s record as governor, Romney’s team quickly mobilized.

Mitt Romney
Mary Altafer/AP

There would be no such rally such as that George H.W. Bush staged with Boston police officers when he was running for president in 1988 against then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis, and no such uncontested photo-op of Bush peering into the waters of a then-polluted Boston Harbor.

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The Romney campaign organized a counter-rally 90 minutes before Axelrod was to appear, then had an energetic and boisterous group of its campaign interns hang around until the Obama event began.

They ended up drowning out Axelrod, muting his criticism of Romney, and showing in the process the kind of pluck normally reserved for the Occupy Wall Street crowd.

As an Obama supporter tried in vain to organize a cheer of, “I say ‘O,’ and you say, “bama,” the Romney crowd seamlessly improvised to shout down another cheer of “four more years” with “five more months.”

As Axelrod took the microphone, he looked out at a sea of Romney posters reading, “Obama Isn’t working,” freshly shipped up Beacon Hill from the campaign’s headquarters in the North End.

To top it off, the Romney team brought in a bubble-making machine to lend a festive air to their mischief. Not to be denied, they commandeered an external outlet on an NBC News satellite truck to supply the electricity.

In the long arc of a campaign, the event is likely insignificant. But it is somewhat emblematic of the Romney campaign’s dexterity since clinching the Republican presidential nomination.

It also reiterates the challenges the Obama campaign has faced as it’s tried to execute its plan to define Romney negatively before he can cement a positive image in the public’s minds eye.

Obama first attacked Romney’s record at Bain Capital, a strategy that proved successful in 1994 when then-Senator Edward M. Kennedy repelled Romney’s challenge by focusing on Bain’s failures at American Pad & Paper Inc.

An initial focus on Bain dealings at a Missouri steel plant was undercut when an Obama surrogate, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, branded the criticism “nauseating” just as the president was rolling out a second attack ad focused on Ampad.

At the same time, the US economy began to exhibit fresh signs of slowing, while questions about the fate of European economies renewed.

“Obviously, the world economy is still in a delicate place because of what’s going on in Europe and the fact that some of the emerging countries have been slowing down. It is absolutely critical for us to make sure that we are full speed ahead,” Obama himself said Wednesday at an Export-Import Bank bill-signing ceremony at the Old Executive Office Building.

Meanwhile, Romney has worked aggressively to define himself in positive terms while waging his own attacks on Obama.

On Wednesday, that meant a pair of campaign videos, one of which featured Romney’s wife, Ann, talking about her battle with multiple sclerosis, the other of which recapped the first year of Romney’s campaign.

In the former, titled, “Soulmate,” Ann Romney and her sons paid tribute to Mitt Romney. “He really stepped up,” said eldest son, Tagg.

In the latter, titled, “The Promise of America,” Romney himself spoke against gauzy music as he proclaimed, “This president puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.”

On Thursday, the Romney campaign’s penchant for secrecy—and ability to keep one—paid off when he staged a counter-attack on Obama not just at the State House, but across the country in California.

He packed his traveling press corps onto a bus, got on himself, and then rode in without revelation until he pulled up to the former headquarters of Solyndra, the renewable energy company that failed after support from the Obama administration.

There was not one Obama protestor in sight.

“I’m afraid the reason that the stimulus has been unsuccessful, that the turnaround has taken so long to occur, that the recovery has been so tepid, is that the president fails to understand the basic nature of free enterprise in America,” Romney told the group. “He thinks that government-dominated decisions like this make America stronger. They make us weaker. They send the wrong message.”

While Romney’s appearance coincided with a White House portrait-unveiling for former President George W. Bush, robbing the Republican candidate of valuable free cable news exposure, it was about the only ripple in an otherwise seamless campaign day.

He even used the occasion to embrace rather than distance himself from the tumult his team created back in Boston. In the past, Romney has reprimanded and tried to silence hecklers at his events, though it is unclear who dispatched some of them.

“If the president is going to have his people come in to my rallies and heckle, why, we’ll show them we conservatives have the same kind of capacity he does,” said Romney.