WILLIAMSBURG, Va.—The nation’s governors have a host of their own problems to worry about—that pesky Medicaid expansion for example—but that doesn’t mean they’re not keeping a close eye on 2012’s biggest ticket: the presidential election.
Asked on the sidelines of the National Governor’s Association annual meeting about their diagnosis of Mitt Romney’s campaign, the Republican governors had all kinds of advice for the candidate who comes from their ranks, from release-those-tax-returns-already to give-us-more-specifics.
Despite the Beltway buzz and grumbling from some conservatives that the former Massachusetts governor has not been nimble or aggressive enough in responding to the Obama team’s attacks, many of the Republican governors here said Romney had hit on an economic message that voters in their states wanted to hear, and lauded his progress.
“I believe he’s moving down the right road, going in the right direction. Is he where he needs to be? No. But can he get there? Yes,” said Utah Gov. Gary Richard Herbert, referring to Romney’s numbers in several swing states, where he is trailing President Obama. “He’s come a long way since when he first ran four years ago and right now, in a dead heat with a current incumbent president who has all the powers of incumbency.”
Herbert added, indignantly, “”I was in Utah when he was running the Olympics! He wasn't running Bain Capital.”
Despite another mediocre jobs report released this month, the political debate of the past week has been consumed with the question of how involved Romney was in the investment firm from 1999 to 2002, when Bain was investing in firms that outsourced jobs. Romney was on at least a partial leave of absence to run the Salt Lake City Olympics during that time. Filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission show that he was still the owner, chairman, CEO and president of Bain, but he says he wasn't managing the firm’s investments.
A series of media reports about Romney’s role and withering, relentless attacks by the Obama campaign prompted Romney to respond more forcefully than he has against past charges. He went on a media blitz Friday, doing a series of interviews on network television and demanding an apology from the Obama campaign for saying he had lied about his Bain involvement. Instead, the Obama campaign upped the ante Saturday with a potentially powerful new ad focused on outsourcing and the offshore tax shelters Romney listed on his 2010 tax return, the only one he has released so far.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley found himself in hot water for perhaps a little too much candor when he said Romney would do well to release more tax returns, as Democrats have demanded in recent weeks. “I think he ought to release everything. I believe in total transparency,” Bentley told reporters. “You know if you have things to hide, then you may be doing things wrong.”
Bentley added, however, that the Obama campaign's focus on outsourcing was a diversionary tactic that voters would see through. “I do believe the Obama campaign is trying to cloud the issue by talking about Bain Capital because they don’t want to talk about 8.4 percent unemployment and I wouldn’t either!” Bentley said (slightly inflating the June jobless rate, which was 8.2 percent). “If I were them, I’d be talking about all the other things too.”
At NGA—no surprise here--there was a blanket condemnation of the Democratic attacks from the Republican governors. “At the end of the day, people are going to reject that kind of nasty, negative campaign coming from the president of the United States,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
The GOP governors said the sniping between the campaigns is irrelevant to people who are hurting for jobs, looking for a speedier recovery, and worried about the nation’s debt. “This fuss we see over this is just not the headline it apparently is inside the Beltway,” said Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead. “If you ask people what they’re concerned about, they’re concerned about the future of our kids and our grandkids, they’re concerned about the national debt.”
Mead added that Romney had been quick to respond to the Bain attacks, a promising development. “Gov. Romney has made clear when he did these things and when he was in charge of Bain Capital and when he was not,” Mead said. “It’s a bit of a red herring in the sense that you’re talking about somebody that was in the private sector creating jobs and if you want to bring up that contrast, I think he compares quite well with President Obama.”
When asked about whether the Bain attacks had the potential to be damaging in his swing state, full of the white, blue-collar voters among whom they might have the most resonance, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett deflected. “I’m not doing surveys of the people of Pennsylvania,” he said. “You’re doing that. I’m much too busy to be doing those surveys.”
Some of the governors did say they would like to see more specificity from the Romney campaign as the election cycle moves toward the conventions. “It is not just enough to say repeal Obamacare, it’s repeal and replace it with what?” Herbert said. “I know governors are talking about that on the Republican side of the aisle, and we’re talking about it in Utah.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who last month survived a recall election provoked by his moves against public employee unions, encouraged Romney to follow in his mold and campaign as a bold, budget-balancing crusader. Voters were just beginning to receive a clearer economic message from him, Walker said. Now, they need more details on the budgetary end.
“For him to do well, the R next to his name has to stand for more than just for Republican, it has to stand for reformer,” Walker said. “We got significant swing votes, independents, even some discerning Democrats voting for me because they like someone who’s willing to take on the tough issues facing our state.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story omitted the Utah governor's first name. He is Gary Richard Herbert.