The former Massachusetts governor will face the same criticism over and over -- but he's got a plan for how to handle it
Rick Perry's "oops" was the big story of last week's Republican primary debate in Michigan. The far more significant moment came when front-runner Mitt Romney pronounced himself "a man of steadiness and constancy." Cue the snickering: After all, Romney is a legendary shape-shifter who has changed his position on abortion, gay rights, climate change, immigration, and gun control.
But the debate offered a glimpse of what the Romney team believes is a credible response to the attacks it knows will saturate the general-election campaign (and have already begun in earnest; see: WhichMitt.com). The counteroffensive goes like this: Take the flip-flopping label that has dogged Romney for years, refute it, and slap it back on Obama. "This race is like a car with its wheels out of alignment: No matter how hard anybody might try otherwise, it's always going to steer back to the economy and jobs," says Romney strategist Stuart Stevens. "Because of that, [Obama's team is] going to launch vicious personal attacks, as they did against Hillary and President Clinton. We won't hesitate to point out how hollow that is."
Look at Romney's unflinching response in the debate when asked about his history of flip-flopping. He backed up his claim to steadfastness by pointing to his leadership of the same company for 25 years, his marriage of 42 years, and his lifelong church membership. "I think it's outrageous the Obama campaign continues to push this idea when you have, in the Obama administration, the most political presidency we've seen in modern history," Romney continued. "They're actually deciding when to pull out of Afghanistan based on politics. Let me tell you this: If I am president of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country--and never apologize for the United States of America."
Romney's team lists several examples of Obama's contradictions. The president promised to fix the economy, and he didn't. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay, and he didn't. He promised a White House based on transparency, devoid of the influence of special interests. The unfolding Solyndra scandal, to them, proves that's not the case. They also see a constantly blurred line between the administration and the reelection campaign. "The contradictions between candidate Obama and President Obama are serious, and I think Governor Romney will be able to make that case," said Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former congressman who is advising the campaign.
The Obama campaign, of course, points to a slew of promises kept: ending the war in Iraq; ending the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy; making progress in the war against al-Qaida; expanding health care; standing up to Wall Street. Want to turn the campaign into a flip-flopping competition? Bring it on. "Mitt Romney can spend all the time in the world wasting his breath on that," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "It isn't just that Mitt Romney has changed his positions. It's that he has no core." (The Romney team is struck by the similarities between such rhetoric and Obama's 2008 attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton. David Plouffe: "It's clear that Senator Clinton will continue to say or do anything." David Axelrod: "She parses and calculates and shifts for political position.")