Mitt Romney is losing ground in the polls. His popularity with voters has sagged under a barrage of negative advertising, and he’s struggling to shed the moneybags caricature that has hampered him since the start of his campaign. The impact of a foreign jaunt designed to showcase his statesmanship was “negligible,” a senior adviser conceded. And that may be generous.
But inside the presumptive Republican nominee’s headquarters, a warren of rooms in a drab former furniture store in Boston’s North End, Romney’s brain trust insists his recent bumpy stretch is a mere blip in a long campaign. The general election contest starts now. And to hear Romney’s aides tell it, they feel good about where the race stands.
Romney ushers in a new phase of the campaign on Saturday with a bus tour that will swing through Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. The four-day swing through major media markets in a coveted quartet of battleground states is designed to highlight Romney’s approach to “strengthening the middle class.” The former Massachusetts governor will pay tribute to small business owners, talk tough about Obamacare and Chinese trade policy, and assail the President for his supposed hostility to job creators.
It’s also an opportunity to reintroduce Romney after a month that saw Democrats wage a successful battle to define him as a manicured elitist. Parading Romney through barbecue shacks and a NASCAR technical school is a bid to rebut that perception, which they say is inaccurate. “I wish you could see the Governor interact with people the way I see him,” Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters during a Friday morning briefing punctuated by PowerPoint slides and polling data.
Romney aides say they are unruffled by a trio of new national polls from CNN, Fox News and Reuters/Ipsos that show the incumbent with a lead of up to 9 points, an ostensible breakthrough in a remarkably static race. They downplayed these surveys as aberrations that come at a juncture in the race when voters are decamping on vacations and more likely to spend time tracking Olympic results than the latest volleys in a political campaign. There was no “precipitating event” to explain a dramatic shift toward Obama, argued one senior Romney adviser. “If there was a sea change, you’d know it.”
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But it’s possible the blizzard of negative advertising aimed at Romney – the Cleveland metro area alone was bombarded with nearly 20,000 TV ads between April 10 and the beginning of August, an average of some 170 per day – has exacted a toll on the Republican. Certainly it is has irritated Camp Romney.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Fehrnstrom skewered the Obama campaign for escalating its attacks from “petty distortions and untruths to unbelievable exaggerations that diminish the office of the President and insult the American people.” The sustained barrage, he said, has “squandered” one of Obama’s core strengths: the postpartisan image he ran on in 2008. “I don’t think a world champion limbo dancer could get any lower than the Obama campaign right now,” Fehrnstrom said. “When you start running ads accusing your opponent of killing people, then you have lost credibility,” he said, invoking a widely criticized ad run by a pro-Obama super PAC that appeared to link the death of a steelworker’s wife to Romney.
Fehrnstrom said the slashing ads from Obama and his allies would deter voters. “We are betting that a substantive campaign conducted on the high ground and focused primarily on jobs and the economy will trump a campaign that is designed to appeal to our worst instincts,” he said.
Romney’s side has lobbed plenty of grenades as well. And even as they put an optimistic spin on the race, Romney’s aides sought to accentuate the challenges they face by noting that Obama captured all four of the battleground states Romney will be visiting on his tour. “We’re playing on their territory,” said the senior adviser. That isn’t entirely right: Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 splashed a wave of blue across states that had previously been red, and in many cases remain key toss-ups. Republicans must capture some of this territory to have a shot at reaching 270 electoral votes.
Romney’s task, as always, is to frame the race as a simple referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy. The bus tour, which will launch amid fevered speculation over Romney’s selection of a running mate, is a way to press that case to a narrow cadre of undecided voters, and renew the argument that Obama has failed to live up to his promise of a new brand of politics.