BOSTON — It’s heads down and status quo at the beige, three-story building that is Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters, despite the “navel-gazing, handwringing and bedwetting” — as one consultant dismissively put it — consuming some Republicans this week.
That’s the campaign’s story, and staffers are sticking to it.
“We expected all along for this race to be close, to be tight and to be hard fought, and that’s exactly what you’re seeing,” said Romney spokesman Danny Diaz. “At the end of the day, Obama is not going to be able to convince people that he should be rehired.”
But polls showing slightly more optimism about the economy and President Obama’s leadership, as well as a string of missteps by the Romney campaign, have set many Republicans outside this city on edge. In the last week alone, Romney has battled firestorms lit by his remarks describing 47 percent of the country as government freeloaders, reports of campaign infighting, his hair-trigger response to anti-American violence in Egypt and Libya, and a convention most memorable for Clint Eastwood’s bizarre comedy routine.
Veteran campaign hands say Romney sorely needs to flesh out his vision for the country and specific policy details on how he gets there.
“Since Tampa there’s been kind of a unanimous chorus of people talking about how bad the Romney campaign is, though I don’t think it’s that bad and incumbent presidents have enormous advantages at their disposal,” said Republican strategist Reed Galen. “The race is still tied after probably the worst three weeks of the Romney campaign.”
At campaign headquarters, there are signs of business as usual: Chick-fil-A ordered for lunch, an office prank posted on Twitter, and a festive gathering for a staffer’s birthday. But there are also signs of the bunker mentality typical of campaigns under siege.
“There are no reporters in there today,” was the reply when a National Journal correspondent asked Diaz for a tour. So what? “Well then, I choose not to bring you in there,” he said.
“I don’t have an office where we can talk,” was the response of a more apologetic campaign aide, who insisted on meeting at a nearby coffee shop.
There is carping about media bias and polls that overestimate Democratic turnout. Though campaign staffers frequently prefer to talk off the record, they seemed more insistent than usual. And a little surly.
“No way I’m talking about the self-inflicted mistakes on the record,” said one top strategist.
Asked about the mounting criticism of the campaign, another adviser snapped, “You’re welcome to your opinion.”
And another: “You’ll have to talk to somebody else about that.”
They argue that the race is close, the country is polarized and the undecided voters are holding out for next month’s debates. Ignoring surveys that show Romney trailing by as much as 5 to 8 percentage points, campaign aides point to Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls that show President Obama only a point or two ahead, his “bounce” from the Democratic convention gone. They note that the president is headed to Democratic-leaning Wisconsin for the first time in months, while Romney is exceeding expectations in the pivotal battlegrounds of Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and North Carolina. On the ground, they say, the GOP has already knocked on a million more doors than it had by Election Day in 2008, and the party vows to outspend Obama on the air in the homestretch.
Here’s what the Romney team does concede: Obama had a really good convention, especially the part when former President Clinton left the audience with a warm glow about the administration and the country’s direction. They note that Romney needs to work harder to reach female voters and the Hispanic community, which was the focus of several campaign events this week. The campaign also has to keep pushing back on Democratic attacks on the GOP ticket’s proposed overhaul of Medicare — another checked box this week at campaign events and with a new ad featuring Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, a GOP superstar.
One more concession: Obama has far more staffers and volunteers, but that doesn’t mean Romney’s ground game won’t be competitive.
“We’re working harder and smarter,” said Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson. “We’re not trying to personally lower the unemployment rate with campaign staffers.”
Speaking of which, it is an article of faith in the Romney campaign that the nation’s economic doldrums will ultimately expose Obama to undecided voters as a failed leader and that Romney’s business background and a new emphasis on his more detailed prescriptions to fix the economy will lure those voters into his camp.
“Any day we’re on the news on talking about jobs is a good day,” said Republican consultant Charlie Black, who campaigned on Romney’s behalf in Florida this week. “You don’t want distractions, whether the other side causes them or you cause them yourself.”