As we move from the primary contest to the general-election campaign, now on the verge of the 200-day war between President Obama and Mitt Romney, let’s pause for a minute and reflect on some things we have learned about Romney and offer him a little advice on his immediate next steps.
We have seen that the Romney campaign has run an excellent tactical effort, but we don’t know whether it can be as good at overall strategy and brand positioning. It had the tactics down against its opponents in the primary. It knew the byzantine rules better and was better at putting together delegate slates and operations in key states. It was great at running negative ads in key places to undercut their opponents. And it did this often and with overwhelming firepower. Recruiting the best people to endorse Romney, it also put together a very smart staff.
All are great tactics, but we still are uncertain of his campaign's strategic capability. That will become imperative for this general-election battle, because Romney will be facing an Obama campaign that is equally good at tactics and that will likely overwhelm his, at least initially, in ad spending and resources. This is a situation Romney has not faced before, and tactics won’t save him. He will need a sound strategy and effective overall message to carry him into the fall -- a message that convinces voters to cast ballots for him as well as against Obama.
So what advice would I give, at least in the short term, to Romney? To paraphrase a Jack Nicholson movie title, here are five easy pieces:
- Turn completely to the general election. Let go of the bitter fight with Rick Santorum and understand the key strategic imperative is to unite the party. Being bigger than Santorum will show how confident you are and how generous you can be. Don’t run any more negative ads against Santorum; let it be OK for him to win his home state and possibly save face. Tell your staff to quit attacking him and his campaign. Choose either to be all positive about yourself or to only contrast yourself with Obama. This will show how smart your campaign is and how able you are to adapt to a new moment. It is Easter, by the way, and as many folks of faith celebrate a new beginning and the power of compassion. Adopt this same sentiment.
- Sit down with the key players in your campaign. Really have them debate your overarching strategy and primary message for the fall. Right now you -- in mirror image to what the president is doing -- seem to have adopted three key attacks: that Obama is out of touch, out of the mainstream, and can’t be trusted. Funny thing is, Obama is saying the same thing about you. You need to settle on one message, as does the president, and be disciplined about it. But because you’re vulnerable on each of these attacks, you might also consider some other strategy.
- Take some time off over Easter. Let your campaign staff reenergize and get some needed rest as well. The biggest mistakes happen when candidates and campaigns are tired, overworked, and disconnected from the people they care about. You won’t lose this race because you didn’t do five cities a day for the next 200 days, but you could because of mistakes that you or your campaign make. Even marathon runners take breaks in training to recoup.
- Schedule a foreign trip very soon. This will begin showing Americans that you are ready to lead on a global stage. It will also give you a little break from the cable chatter and allow you to have larger conversation with the American public. Use this opportunity to give a big speech about what you envision as America’s place in the world, and how you might lead in the White House. Americans know that presidential leadership and global international relations and dynamics have a dramatic effect on their daily lives. Show that you understand that and can lead in the 21st century.
- Be ready for key moments that show the public who you are. You need to understand that these are the most important things for you in this 200-day battle. The process you use to pick your vice-presidential nominee and who you pick are huge. Take your time and don’t be pushed -- and for sure don’t use a pick to solve some geographic problem or as some huge game-changer. The last time geography helped on this was more than 50 years ago, when John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson, and we aren’t the same country now. And we know how game-change picks work out – just ask John McCain. Design your convention to deliver messages to swing voters. Don’t just have folks working on the logistics of the convention, but have your message folks design it like a play, with each night being an act. And prepare diligently for the debates. Obama is very good -- if you don’t hit a home run at these, no television ads will be able to save you.
Moving into the back-and-forth of this general-election race, I am hoping one of these candidates is able to rise about the vicious battle we are about to watch and give us a vision for where we head as a country in this troubled time.
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