Mitt Romney stumbles, but don't count him out

Published Sep. 19, 2012

Mitt Romney should have at least as much money as Barack Obama for the closing 48 days of the presidential campaign. Polls show him neck and neck with the president in most of the key battleground states, including Florida. And voters overwhelmingly see the country heading in the wrong direction, while unemployment remains north of 8 percent.

To hear many Republicans quietly grumble and pundits imply, however, the election is all but over and Romney blew it.

"Why Barack Obama is winning" was the POLITICO headline Tuesday morning, days after the site for political junkies wrote a virtual Romney campaign obituary featuring anonymous finger pointing and second-guessing among Romney campaign staffers.

No question, the Republican nominee has had a lousy last few weeks.

Clint Eastwood's barely coherent conversation with an empty chair overshadowed Romney's convention speech, which included no mention of America's troops. Then critics from both sides of the aisle criticized Romney's response to the embassy attacks in Egypt and Libya as clumsy and unpresidential.

Now, the liberal outlet Mother Jones has released a secretly recorded videotape of Romney implying to top donors in Boca Raton last spring that Obama's supporters — and nearly half the electorate — are moochers "dependent on government" and who "believe they are victims."

"Romney has had an unbelievably bad stretch," said Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. "The process of moving from pixels to clarity is what occurs in a presidential campaign. Who Mitt Romney is, is beginning to fill in in a way that is not positive for him and that is the result of the debacle over the last month."

Gaffes and ham-handed comments are inevitable in grueling presidential campaigns, as Obama showed himself in April 2008, when he was secretly recorded at a fundraiser talking about "bitter" voters who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."

Obviously, it's far better to make such a mistake in April than September of an election year, but September is better than October.

Romney's comments recorded at the Boca Raton home of private equity manager Marc Leder underscored the perception Democrats have fueled for months that Romney is an out of touch millionaire with little understanding of the middle class. The comments also overlook that seniors and working class white voters, critical to Romney's prospects, make up a large chunk of Americans who pay no income tax.

"Mitt Romney's words weren't just insulting, they revealed his true, underlying vision for America," Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith said Tuesday. "In Mitt Romney's America, if you aren't born to wealth and privilege like he was — if you are a firefighter, a teacher, a student or senior — you're on your own and can expect nothing from a Romney administration."

Obama took note of the comments in an interview with David Letterman: "One thing I've never tried to do, and I think none of us can do in public office, is suggest that because someone doesn't agree with me that they're victims or they're unpatriotic," he said. "There are not a lot of people out there who think they're victims. There are not a lot of people who think they're entitled to something."

Romney has not backed off his remarks, except to say he could have phrased them better.

"We were, of course, talking about a campaign and how (Obama's) going to get close to half the vote, I'm going to get half the vote, approximately. I want to get 50.1 percent or more," he told Fox News on Tuesday.

For all the uproar over the secret recording and hand-wringing among some conservatives, the presidential race remains close and unpredictable.

"The silver lining in a sea of bad news is the structure of the race remains very close," Schmidt said. "There's not a great deal of elasticity."

Obama has an edge, because he narrowly leads Romney in all of the nine main battleground states and has more paths to winning than Romney.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday evening showed Obama getting a boost from improving voter mood about the economy. The national poll showed voters now rate Obama equal to Romney on which candidate can best improve the economy, and Obama, whose approval ratings have climbed to their highest level since March, is leading overall among likely voters 50 percent to 45 percent.

"When people are anxious they can go one of two ways. They can vote to make a change or for stability," said Republican strategist John Feehery. "The problem for Romney is Obama has been pretty good in reacting and he seems more like the adult while Romney is going around half-cocked."

Only in Ohio and New Hampshire do the average of recent battleground state polls show Obama leading by at least four points. The upcoming debates or unpredictable foreign or domestic developments could upend the landscape.

"Nobody's getting weak-kneed," said Brian Ballard, a top Romney money-raiser in Florida, who said planned Romney fundraisers in Miami today and Palm Beach Thursday have generated significant support and interest.

"The folks I talk to still very much think Mitt is going to win. People are voting with their checkbooks," he said. "It's a uniquely Washington thing that when the first bump in the road occurs, people like to point fingers."

Campaigning for Romney in Tampa on Tuesday, Arizona Sen. John McCain brushed off the second-guessing of Romney as beltway chatter.

"It's still a very close race, and I still think that there's a lot of people who have not made up their minds, and I still think they have a very good chance of winning," McCain said. "You will always hear voices out there who could do it better. That's one of the reasons why they're out there and not inside because they're not very good."

The critical next stage for Romney is the debates, which begin Oct. 3 in Denver. Romney was strong in the Republican primary debates and has a chance to show a national audience his command of the issues and directly confront his rival on the economy.

"He has to show in the debates he is up to the task," said Republican strategist Jamie Miller of Sarasota. "Those of us who believe in him know he's up to the task, but I'm not sure he's made the sale to American people."

"He needs to communicate what he's trying to do, and to communicate with the middle class, the backbone of the country," added Pinellas GOP chairman J.J. Beyrouti. "Time is running out."

Tallahassee GOP strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said rough patches tend to be cyclical in campaigns, and Romney has plenty of time to regain the momentum.

"He can't continue this way for another three weeks and get well, but as you and I sit here talking today hopefully these are all teachable moments, and he will learn from them and move on," Stipanovich said. "What Gov. Romney has to do is prove that he's able to seize an opportunity and make the most of it. There are damn sure a hell of a lot of opportunities for him."

Times staff writer Katie Sanders and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.