Who’s the dope in Mitt Romney’s ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Conservatives have been urging Mitt Romney to start throwing some verbal punches. But maybe this is part of his strategy? Fox News’s Brit Hume, for example, has argued that Romney might be pursuing a rope-a-dope strategy.

Like many observers, this strikes me as dangerous. You have to beat the champion. It’s the same way in presidential politics (though these rules don’t always apply down ballot) — Barack Obama is the reigning champion and Mitt Romney can’t rely on scoring points and running out the clock. Right now, Obama is still personally popular. Romney needs to start landing some verbal blows.

Think of it this way. Despite the fact that Obama has had a pretty miserable couple of months, he has still driven the debate, and has generally maintained a slight lead in the polls (including in most of the swing states). And during that time, whether the conversation has been the Buffett Rule or the DREAM Act or extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $250,000 — Obama has defined the turf.

Even in the rare instances where conservatives have been on offense, Romney was mostly just capitalizing on gaffes (Hilary Rosen). In some cases, it was the work of third parties (such as Jim Treacher discovering a young Obama dined on man’s best friend) that turned the tide. (In fairness, Obama has the bully pulpit and much of the media, so it’s not a fair fight.) Still, this question is worth asking: If Obama is still winning now, after getting off to a rough start, why should anyone expect things to change in, say, October.

When that final bell rings, will Romney wish he had hit a little harder in the early rounds?

Ironically, Romney may be harmed by the fact that the race has been so close. He can take solace in the fact that he is within the margin of error, but that will be cold comfort should he lose by a point or two.

Were Romney down by double digits, it would be panic time. In that case, he might actually be forced to shake things up, to take some chances, and to replace some of his insular Boston loyalists with fresh campaign advisers who might shake him out of his comfort zone. But since he’s just down a couple of points, Romney will stick to his risk-averse nature, and keep plodding along.

Now Mitt Romney has to make a choice. The rope-a-dope might work for a while, but at some point, he has to take off the gloves and deliver the metaphorical knock-out punch. No matter how much the Obama campaign may flounder, Romney’s not going to become president by default.

You have to win the Oval Office.

Matt K. Lewis