Following a resounding win in Tuesday’s Illinois primary, a senior campaign adviser to Mitt Romney dismissed concerns that any tack to the right in the primary might hurt him in the general election, saying "it’s like an Etch A Sketch -- you can shake it up and we start all over again.”
“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Eric Fehrnstrom said Wednesday on CNN’s Starting Point. “Everything changes."
GOP rival Rick Santorum immediately pounced on the remark in a speech in Harvey, La.
“One of Gov. Romney’s aides today on television said that Gov. Romney, after he wins the primaries, will be like an Etch-a-Sketch,” he said. “Well, that should be comforting to all of you who are voting in this primary, that whoever you are going to vote for is going to be a completely new candidate. … One thing you can say – even my staunchest critics will say – is what you see is what you get.”
Adding insult to injury, Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon tweeted a photo of Santorum using an Etch-a-Sketch later on Wednesday, accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek caption: " studying up on policy positions." The Democratic National Committee flooded inboxes with news of the remark, and Democratic consultant Matt Ortega put up the website, etchasketchmittromney.com, featuring alleged Romney flip-flops on an Etch-a-Sketch screen.
GOP White House hopeful Newt Gingrich also took a swipe at the Romney camp for the Etch-a-Sketch comment, tweeting: "Etch-a-Sketch is a great toy but a losing strategy. We need a nominee w/ bold conservative solutions."
Gingrich later walked into an event in Lake Charles, La., holding one and handed it to children in the front row. "This is a spare Etch-a-Sketch, so why don't you guys split it?" he said. "You can now be a presidential candidate.”
By late afternoon, Santorum's campaign spokeswoman was handing out mini-Etch-a-Sketches in the parking lot of a Romney event near Baltimore.
Fehrnstrom’s "reset" remark was a direct response to a question about whether Romney’s rivals might force him to tack too far to the right to win moderates in the fall.
In an e-mail to National Journal, however, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Fehrnstrom was talking about the shift in the landscape of the race as the candidates move toward the general election. “As we move from the primary to the general election, the campaign changes,” she wrote. “ It's a different race, with different candidates, and the main issue now becomes President Obama’s failure to create jobs and get this economy moving.”
Fehrnstrom said on CNN that Romney is “broadly acceptable to most of the factions in the party ... He's winning conservatives. He’s winning Tea Party voters. He’s winning men, women, winning Catholics.” He said that is because GOP voters see him as best able to lead on the economy and defeat Obama.
Fehrnstrom also said on CNN that he is confident that Romney’s main rivals will eventually drop out of the race so that the party can rally behind one candidate. Fehrnstrom pointed to Romney’s decision during the 2008 GOP primary to step aside so that the party could rally behind Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in preparation for the fight against Barack Obama in the fall.
“At the time, John McCain did not have the delegates he needed to clinch the nomination, but he was clearly on a path to doing that,” Fehrnstrom said, drawing a parallel to Romney’s significant lead over his nearest rivals in delegates.
“It was important for John McCain to begin to rally the party behind him so he could prepare himself for the fall election campaign,” Fehrnstrom said. “Mitt Romney stepped aside.”
Fehrnstrom suggested that Romney’s main rivals, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, will follow Romney's 2008 example and step down before the GOP’s Tampa convention this summer.
“They are both decent, honorable men who have run good campaigns,” he said. “Ultimately I am confident they will make a decision that’s not only right for their party, but right for them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said who posted the etchasketchmittromney.com website. It was Democrat Matt Ortega.
Lindsey Boerma and Sarah Huisenga contributed.