Romney’s aggressive strategy to manage the press

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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At first blush, Republican Mitt Romney’s second bid at securing his party’s nomination is a far more casual effort than his previous attempt. He’s foresworn the same level of self-financing, traded in the Brooks Brothers’ two-piece for Gap jeans and a Red Sox-embroidered polo, and his hair even seems to have a little give these days.

But Romney’s everyman reinvention is anything but casual: Every detail — from dropping ubiquitous references of discount retail giants Wal-Mart and Target to sporting a pickup truck at fundraisers — has been meticulously choreographed for the ex-venture capitalist so eager to shed the perception he’s too slick, too stiff and too phony.

The burden to control the narrative of Romney’s truck-driving alter ego is so tough on his handlers that the ex-governor’s media exposure is generally limited to columnists. (At Romney’s May call-a-thon, traveling press was corralled in a “glass-enclosed room” by campaign aides.)

Worse, the campaign’s uneasy posture towards press has left the candidate suffering through awkward exchanges with the media on occasions when they are granted access.

When Romney was leaving the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Orrin Hatch last week, reporters peppered him with questions, each left unanswered. But one struck a cord: “How do you expect to be president if you don’t answer questions from the press?” Romney admitted, with an agitated press corps in tow, that he prefers to not conduct interviews “on the fly.”

The brush was reminiscent of a 2008 campaign episode in which then-candidate Barack Obama barked at a Pennsylvania reporter to “just let me eat my waffle” amid questioning.The Massachusetts governor’s hometown paper, the Boston Globe, wrote the premortem of the campaign’s scripted press strategy: “The former Massachusetts governor found that when you virtually limit your media exposure to written columns, as opposed to unrestricted media questions, you can control your message — but you also leave no one else to blame when there’s trouble.”Aides to rival campaigns say Romney’s distance from the press is an indication of his vulnerability as a front-runner. They point to an emerging theme in accounts of Romney’s campaign travails: He’s gaffe-prone.

“The biggest vulnerability in Romney’s operation may be the candidate himself, whose awkwardness and tone-deafness on the stump are already cropping up as potential areas of concern,” Politico’s Alexander Burns wrote earlier this month.

Of course, there exists a wide gulf between embarrassing gaffes and career-ending missteps, for which one should look no further than Joe Biden as evidence, but one must seriously wonder if Romney’s campaign misfires taken in totality will rob him of front-runner status.

Columnists who have shadowed the ex-governor on the trail found the exercise a profile in awkwardness, like a moment in which Romney approached a man perusing shelves at a local hardware store to ask if he was “shopping here today.” But the greatest motivation for campaign aides to shelter their boss from press may not be his awkward on-the-stump exchanges; but rather, his confusion over some of the Democrats’ damaging policies.

Romney generated a spate of unwanted press attention when he veered from the script, saying at a one-of-a-kind press conference that he never charged the president guilty of worsening America’s economy.

Except he did.

ThinkProgress caught Romney earlier this week assailing the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. But he could cite no objectionable provisions — of which conservatives would find many. When asked if he opposed all the provisions in the measure, or only specifics, Romney admitted his ignorance of the bill. “It’s 2,000 pages, I’m sure there’s something in there that’s good,” he said. “I’ll be happy to take a look and perhaps line-by-line at some point lay out the provisions that I think are unfortunate.” But not right now, you see. And in the same swing through New Hampshire, Gov. Romney referred to Congressional assent of U.S. military action in Libya when no such approval was offered.

The most persistent late-night monologue knock against Romney will come as no surprise to even casual observers: Mitt Romney looks like the guy who pink-slipped your father. It’s enduring quality might explain, if only marginally, a rather inelegant campaign event in which Romney told a group of unemployed Floridians he is also unemployed.

This is uncertain territory for campaign handlers, who must either muster the courage to wrangle the candidate or wrangle the press. And in the intervening years since Romney lost his 2008 presidential bid to the famously available John McCain, with whom this writer interviewed numerous times (including on the Straight Talk Express), it’s become clear his aides are pursuing the latter. Evidently not vigorously enough.

Matt K. Lewis