Has Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment finally arrived?
It was five long months ago when one of the Republican candidate’s top strategists, Eric Fehrnstrom, glibly compared the transition between the primary and general elections to using the children’s toy. “You hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” he said.
If only that were true. Romney can’t wipe away the torrent of attack ads from President Obama and his allies—along with some self-imposed blunders about being a rich guy—that have made him the least popular nominee heading into a convention since 1988, according to the Pew Research Center. He is trailing the president among women and is way behind among Hispanics in must-win states. Even in the worst preelection economy in decades, Romney has failed to frame the race as promised—as a referendum on the president’s stewardship.
There are no do-overs in politics.
But second, third, and even fourth acts are not uncommon, especially in this constantly churning digital age. Romney’s team believes that his new running mate, Paul Ryan, has injected his campaign with vigor and purpose. After weeks of fending off unsavory allegations about his business practices and personal finances, Romney is playing offense, trying to force the president to defend his health care overhaul, welfare policy, and aggressive campaign tactics.
“This [Republican] convention looms very large, larger than most, because it has to establish a lasting theme that will allow us to go on the offensive for the next 60 days of the campaign,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “We have to keep hitting hard.”
Democrats have always wanted to make this race a choice between two competing visions of government. When Romney partnered with a nervy conservative clamoring to gut the executive branch, he made the choice even clearer. The accolades that Romney’s team showers on the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Budget Committee—“bold,” “visionary,” “optimistic”—implicitly concede the weaknesses at the top of the ticket as well as the challenges ahead. There’s little doubt that Ryan’s addition has helped solidify Romney’s own amorphous political identity.
“It’s a bigger election than it was,” said former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., who advises the campaign. “Sure, it plays into what Democrats thought was the better scenario and where they’d rather be than a referendum on Obama and the economy. But there are lots of Republicans who believe we can win an ideological battle over the size and scope of government in this center-right nation. Now it’s time for us to suit up, get on the field, and win the argument.”
To do so, the ticket will first have to persuade voters that Ryan’s controversial overhaul of Medicare is less of a threat than Obama’s health care law—and then move back to a broader discussion about the economy. Otherwise, it will be tough for the GOP to stay on the offensive.
CHARTING A WIN
Getting down to brass tacks, Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, has come up with a half-dozen paths to reaching the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Almost every scenario depends on Romney’s winning Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia—all states that Obama took in 2008. (North Carolina delivered the narrowest win—fewer than 15,000 votes.)
There’s “W’s Way West Lite,” a riff on former President George W. Bush’s route to the White House, which emphasizes Nevada. “Granite/Hawkeye states” reaches New Hampshire and Iowa. “Rust Belt” takes in Michigan (Romney’s birth state), Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (Ryan’s home state). The “Southwest” path goes through Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada and leaves out Virginia. “Midwest” includes Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Then there’s the “Interstate 80 path,” which runs through Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada. And, curiously, “Maine 1,” which emphasizes winning the 1st Congressional District in a Democratic-leaning state where candidates can split the electoral votes, along with taking Colorado and Nevada.
The path Romney chooses will largely hinge on demographics. To build a winning coalition, he needs to extend his lead over Obama among white men, particularly blue-collar workers who are increasingly turning away from the president. He also needs to widen his appeal among women. And although Romney doesn’t need to win the Hispanic vote, a terrible showing could put pivotal states such as Colorado, Florida, and Nevada out of reach. To his credit, Romney has kept the overall race tight despite being significantly outspent; he has consistently presented himself as a steady economic hand in the face of incessant attacks over his wealth. Super PAC spending helped Romney stay competitive but hasn’t insulated the Republican nominee from some significant wear and tear. Looking at the same polls, Democrats tend to focus on Obama’s more favorable image; Republicans point to the neck-and-neck horse race.
Major Garrett contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.