Mitt Romney abruptly shifts strategy
|Chief strategist Stuart Stevens argued that the race is actually trending for Romney. | AP Photo|
Mitt Romney, sensing an opening in the Middle East mess and catching flak from conservatives for giving too little detail about his policy plans, is rolling out a new and broader strategy to make the election a referendum on “status quo versus change,” chief strategist Stuart Stevens told POLITICO.
The shift, which is to include much more emphasis on Romney’s policy prescriptions, means he is scrapping the most basic precept of his campaign. From the time he began contemplating running again after his loss in the 2008 primaries, Romney’s theory of the case has been a relentless and nearly exclusive focus on the listless economy.
But with polls showing Obama for the first time moving clearly ahead in important swing states— most notably, Ohio—Romney advisers concluded they had to make a painful course correction.
Stevens said the economy is likely to remain “the dominant focus” of the campaign. But ads and speeches will focus on a wider array of issues, including foreign policy, the threat from China, debt and the tone in Washington.
Stevens said the big, unifying question will be: “Can we do better on every front?”
On Monday, Romney unveiled a new ad, “The Romney Plan,” that punches back at Obama’s consistent emphasis on growing the economy for the middle class, and emphasizes what the Republican would do.
“My plan is to help the middle class,” Romney says in the ad. “Trade has to work for America. That means crack down on cheaters like China. It means open up new markets.”
A second Romney ad out Monday, “Failing American Families,” is harsher, with a male narrator saying: “Barack Obama: More spending. More debt. Failing American families.”
The news ads are a concession to internal critics of the previous Romney ad series — 16 “A Better Future” ads, customized for nine swing states. Each begins with a clip of Romney at the convention, followed by a quick statistic arguing that Obama has failed that particular state, and ending with Romney’s plan to help the state (defense in Colorado, home values in Florida, manufacturing in North Carolina).
Some Romney officials had argued that straight negative ads would be the only way to move numbers the way the campaign needs to.
Romney also plans to emphasize policy solutions when he speaks Monday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in Los Angeles. “I expected the president, at his convention, to talk about the unemployed and to unveil a jobs plan,” Romney says in prepared remarks. “Astonishingly, he did not.”
Romney, badly losing the Hispanic vote to Obama, includes a pitch to improve “legal immigration.”
“I will work with Republicans and Democrats to permanently fix our immigration system,” he says. “I believe we can all agree that what we need are fair and enforceable immigration laws that will stem the flow of illegal immigration, while strengthening legal immigration.”
Arguing that Romney is doing better than many pundits recognize, Stevens said the Middle East unrest and continuing economic unease will help the Republican regain momentum and quiet the concerns among GOP insiders.
“When the [Federal Reserve] did something it’s never done before, because the economy was so weak, we had to step back and say: ‘That’s nothing but a cry for change in the status quo.’ … We’re on track to win this race.”
But the campaign is eager to spread the word they are responding to critics and shifting gears. After POLITICO reported Sunday night about internal concerns with Stevens’s role in the campaign, The New York Times and other publications went up with stories promising a new approach.
Stevens defended his role, saying he works for a great campaign and takes responsibility for any bad days in the election. He conceded Romney will be second-guessed for allowing Obama to out-spend him 7-to-1 on ads during the two national party conventions. The following week, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama ahead by seven points in Ohio, 5 in Florida and 5 in Virginia – for Romney, the most ominous public poll of the cycle so far.
Obama spent $20 million on 37,000 ads during the conventions, compared with $3.3 million on 4,500 ads for Romney, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, using data from the nonpartisan Kantar Media/CMAG.
Stevens said the campaign went nearly dark for those two weeks because “the dominant story was going to be the convention.”
“Life is always more pleasant when you’re on the air, but we were being very disciplined about it,” he said. “We would rather have that $20 million to spend now that it’s not competing with the conventions. You have to be disciplined about these things.”
Romney’s own convention acceptance speech—on the same night actor Clint Eastwood stole headlines with his empty-chair monologue—criticized Obama’s leadership style and barely mentioned the GOP’s own policy alternatives. There was no bounce in polls following the GOP’s Tampa gathering.
Alert for flickers of sunshine, Stevens pointed to slight movement in tracking polls by Rasmussen and Gallup to argue the race is actually trending for Romney.
“In races, you’re going up or you’re doing down. He’s going down and we’re going up,” Stevens said. “His convention bounce has faded faster than most. If you’re losing 4 points [in Gallup and Rasmussen] and that’s a good week, I’d hate to see a bad week…
“Obama lost  points and it was a rough week for us? I don’t quite see it that way. Any poll you pick, he’s losing a point a day.”
Stevens insisted, contrary to what most strategists think, that national trends matter most at this point in the race.
“Tracking polls track the race,” he insisted. “It would be like walking into a department store with 50 different scales and standing on them.”
Stevens dismissed the hand-wringing that in recent days has consumed Washington GOP circles. He said commentators and political reporters have “a self-reinforcing feedback loop” that yields a misleading conventional wisdom among the Washington elite.
“I feel good about where things are,” he said. “In races, you’re going up or you’re going down. He’s going down and we’re going up. His convention bounce has faded faster than most. At the convention, he missed a huge opportunity to lay out a new agenda. I think Mitt Romney is going to win.”
Stevens paused and added: “Fairly comfortably.”