With Detroit Debacle, Mitt Romney Steps on His Momentum—Again

The Republican candidate has a tendency to make cringe-inducing gaffes right when things are going well for his campaign.

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Mitt Romney's big economic speech in Detroit on Friday could hardly have gone more awry.

First, the venue, Ford Field, home of the Lions, seats 65,000, but Romney managed to draw just 1,200. That was too many for the first venue the campaign had picked, but in the cavernous stadium, the crowd -- despite the campaign's strenuous efforts to position it more favorably -- looked pathetically puny. As a metaphor for the lack of grassroots enthusiasm Romney attracts, the scene was irresistible.

As if that weren't bad enough, Romney then veered off script -- disastrously.

"I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck," he observed, meditating on the virtues of Detroit-made cars. "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually."

Nothing wrong with loving American automobiles, but the casual reference to more than one luxury vehicle was beyond tone-deaf. The reaction, on social media and elsewhere, was an immediate eruption of schadenfreude from liberals and anti-Romney conservatives alike. 

It was the latest in the ever-lengthening list of gaffes that have served to underscore the impression that Romney is perilously out of touch with regular folks, from "I like being able to fire people" to "I'm not concerned with the very poor."

In addition to his foot-in-mouth tendency, Romney also happens to have impeccably bad timing -- a real knack for stepping in it right when the campaign momentum had started to turn in his direction.

In this case, Romney's fortunes finally seemed again to be on an upswing, following his commanding performance in Wednesday's debate. And it was just starting to look like he might be able to coast to victory in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday. Now, a fresh round of criticism of his awkwardness and wealth could give voters in those states pause.

The story was much the same with Romney's "very poor" line at the end of January. That comment came in an interview he gave the night he won the Florida primary. The next day's news should have been a Romney inevitability-fest. Instead, it was consumed with debate over whether he'd strike general-election voters as cartoonishly callous. A week later, Romney lost three state contests to Rick Santorum.

Romney's other chance to ride a wave of momentum came after his big win in New Hampshire. But he spent that week battling attacks over his record at Bain Capital, often awkwardly, and refusing to give a straight answer about when he'd release his tax returns. At the first debate in South Carolina, he said he just didn't know when they might come out, adding cryptically, "Time will tell." At the second, he called himself "someone who's lived in the real streets of America." At a time when Newt Gingrich was hitting it out of the park, Romney's fumbles didn't help his cause any.

It's bad enough, and widely acknowledged at this point, that Romney has a tendency to go off-script in cringe-inducing ways. But what's even worse is that he tends to do it at the worst possible time for his own ambitions.

Image credit: Getty Images/Scott Olson
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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