Analysis: Romney hopes to regain message control
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — For a man basing his presidential hopes on a jobs-and-economy message, Mitt Romney has spent an inordinate amount of time on other issues, from abortion to Medicare to bad weather.
Many of the distractions have been beyond Romney's control, including a GOP congressman's blunder about rape, and the hurricane that essentially wiped out one-fourth of the Republican nominating convention. Others were of Romney's own doing.
Whatever the cause, GOP strategists fear precious time has been lost, and they are eager to use the convention's remaining days to regain control of Romney's message — and to throw President Barack Obama into the defensive posture they think he deserves.
Much of Tuesday's prime time, especially the speech by Romney's wife, Ann, was devoted to trying to put a more human face on the candidate. Other speakers highlighted the nation's 8.3 percent unemployment rate, seen as Obama's biggest political liability, and the crucial topic that has often slipped to the sidelines in recent weeks.
"I guarantee you Barack Obama is the happiest guy in the United States that we're talking about this," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told MSNBC this week, referring to yet another discussion of Rep. Todd Akin's claim that "legitimate rape" victims can somehow purposely avoid becoming pregnant.
"Because when we're talking about this, we're not talking about unemployment, we're not talking about a terrible economy," Barbour said.
Barbour and others acknowledge that Republicans can't defeat Obama solely by addressing the economy. They must hit broader issues such as Medicare, and Romney must use the election's final 70 days to connect more deeply and warmly with voters.
But top advisers in both campaigns agree that Obama's stewardship of the economy is the overriding issue. That's why Republicans winced at the Aug. 19 remarks by Akin, Missouri's GOP Senate nominee, and other events that wrenched control of the campaign story line from Romney's hands.
On July 26, Romney got his much-anticipated foreign trip off to a bad start, angering Britons by questioning their readiness for the London Olympic Games. It was the start of a misstep-filled trip. He lost the story line for a day at least a month later, off-handedly alluding to the discredited notion that Obama is foreign-born.
"No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate," Romney told Michigan voters. He later called the remark an innocent joke, but the hoopla surrounding it drove political headlines — just days before his convention was to convene.
Such gaffes might seem minor. But political strategists hate to see any day pass without helping shape the story.
"With two months to go until the election, every day that's not spent focused on the economy and jobs is a net loss for Romney," said GOP consultant John Ullyot.
Romney took a calculated risk on Aug. 11, assuring that Medicare — historically a topic Republicans approach warily — would dominate the debate for days or even weeks. He chose as his running mate Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, author of the House Republicans' sweeping budget plan. It calls for phasing out Medicare's defined-benefit component, and giving future retirees a sum of money to help buy health insurance.
Democrats denounce the proposal, saying it will end a long-cherished protection for older Americans.
Campaign strategists disagree on whether the GOP ticket got a political boost from focusing on ways to slow Medicare's growth in future years. There's no disputing, however, that the decision placed comparatively less attention on this year's economy and jobless rates.
And there's no question that two major events beyond Romney's control — Akin's remarks about rape, pregnancy and abortion, and Hurricane Isaac's march towards New Orleans as the convention got started — deprived Romney's team of multiple chances to hammer at Obama's jobs record.
By refusing pleas from Romney and other party leaders to quit the Senate race, Akin made sure his head-turning comments would overshadow other issues for days.
Just as the Akin hubbub was dying down, Isaac began churning its way up the Gulf of Mexico. Monday's schedule for the Tampa convention, which was to focus on attacking Obama's record, had to be scrubbed. And Republican officials weighed options to dial back the rest of the convention's intensity, out of respect for possible storm victims.
Romney, and his ability to control the campaign message, seemed snake-bit.
"Generally the Romney campaign has been able to deftly pivot to the economy," said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. "But lately that has been impossible."
Some Romney supporters are less alarmed. They say it has been clear for months that a singular focus on jobs was not moving Romney ahead of Obama in the polls. Romney's and Ryan's attention to Medicare was wise, they say, and the foreign trip was essential, even if imperfectly executed.
"Taxes and Medicare and debt are all part of the economic message," said Barbara Comstock, a Virginia legislator attending the GOP convention.
Election Day is 10 weeks away. Medicare, foreign policy and gauzier questions such as "vision" and "likability" will play roles in its outcome.
But many Republicans say the struggling economy remains their best issue by far, and Romney can ill-afford another series of distractions like those from the mid-summer.
"For the Romney campaign, every second not spent talking about the economy has an opportunity cost," Mackowiak said. "That cost increases as the campaign winds down."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.