Every time that Mitt Romney appears to have the Republican nomination essentially sewn up, he steps in it and provides new life to his political opponents. While Romney has had a number of embarrassing gaffes during the 2012 Republican race, two of them came at the most inopportune time.
After big wins over Newt Gingrich in Florida and Nevada, Rick Santorum surprised the political world when he swept three contests in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on February 7th. The wins caught the Romney campaign and the media off guard. Romney then headed to Washington D.C. to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. It was there that he declared himself to be “severely” conservative.
Romney’s word choice, while embarrassing, was not a race altering moment. While Santorum was on the move in early February, he stumbled badly in the CNN debate in Arizona just five days before the Arizona and Michigan primaries. Santorum was spinning out of control. He was apologizing for past votes and previous endorsements. He admitted that he voted for things that were against his principles. All Romney needed to do is get out of the way, but less than 24 hours after the debate Romney stepped in it.
A socially awkward Romney declared to the Detroit Economic Club that, “You know, the trees are the right height, the streets are just right.” It was also the event where he told the crowd that while he drives a Mustang and a Chevy pickup, his wife, Ann, drives a couple of Cadillacs. The comment wouldn’t be such a big deal, but Romney has been seen as struggling to relate to average Americans because of a number of these unfortunate statements.
Romney’s Detroit Economic Club event was also bad because it was held inside a 65,000-seat stadium. The media was quick to seize on the visuals of thousands of empty seats since only 1,000 people attended the event. All of that may seem trivial, but Friday, February 24th was a horrible day for the Romney campaign because the media stopped talking about Santorum’s awful debate, and focused on the weird things Romney was saying. The Arizona debate was bad for Santorum, but not fatal, mainly because Romney took attention away from it.
Romney’s inability to put Santorum away in Michigan, the state where he grew up, prolonged the primary. Super Tuesday’s ten contests provided both Romney and Santorum the ability to claim victories in various parts of the county. Even after Santorum posted impressive wins in Alabama and Mississippi, the media made Illinois’ primary out to be a major contest in the race.
Romney won Illinois by over ten points. Even though the media had hyped the contest there, the race was guaranteed to continue on to Louisiana and Wisconsin. Still, the double-digit loss was damaging to Santorum in a number of ways. First, the delegate math continues to get more difficult. Second, the Santorum campaign appears to live paycheck to paycheck, and those paychecks only come after victories. Not getting one in Illinois limited his ability to raise funds to compete in upcoming states. Don’t fool yourself; Santorum’s Super PAC also needs wins and good news to continue to raise money. Thirdly, as the race continues on, the desire by some to rally around the candidate who seems to be in the best position to secure the nomination grows.
Romney had Santorum on the ropes following the Illinois primary, just like he had him on the ropes following the Arizona debate. Instead of finishing Santorum off, Romney’s communications guru, Eric Fehrnstrom, made conservatives realize the sum of all their fears when he answered a question about Romney being pulled too far to the right in the primary by admitting that after the primary, Romney’s stances may change. Fehrnstrom blew off the question by saying that the general election campaign and the issues being discussed will start anew after the primary, just like an Etch A Sketch that “you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”
Making matters worse was that, at the same time Fehrnstrom was comparing his candidate who has a history of flip-flops to a freshly-shaken Etch A Sketch, Romney was on the campaign trail reminding voters that he agreed with the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout. Romney’s defense of TARP and Fehrnstrom’s statement seems to indicate that Romney is simply pandering to the party base. This sends shivers down the spines of Tea Party activists and conservatives alike.
Politically, Romney and Fehrnstrom stepped all over the campaign’s victory in Illinois. Instead of the media continuing to make life difficult for Santorum by talking about delegate math and forcing him to justify his presence in the race, Romney changed the subject and once again provided a lifeline to his political opponents.
For as professional and calculating as Romney and his campaign appear, they have made some major tactical errors in this race. If you want to know why Romney has not wrapped up the Republican nomination, it’s because he continues to make errors at the most inopportune times. Romney’s history of stepping all over opportunities to seize on his opponents problems would be even more problematic in a general election race.
Photo by Dave Davidson – Prezography.com