The Republican presidential candidate is winning in the ugliest way imaginable. Is it all his fault, or has his team made a series of avoidable mistakes?
Mitt Romney never expected to be in this position. Two-and-a-half months after the Republican primaries began, rather than marching to a coronation with a commanding lead, he's just suffered two more embarrassing defeats and is looking ahead to tough fights in such improbable locales as Illinois and California. He's racking up delegates, but he hasn't closed the deal, and talk of a messy, contested Republican convention is ever more rampant.
Did it have to be this way? Or has Romney run a lousy campaign?
It has become fashionable to blame Romney's essential characteristics for his current predicament: his cringe-inducing gaffes, his lack of intrinsic appeal to the conservative and religious base of his party, his near-pathological inability to connect with ordinary people. But Republican political professionals outside the campaign increasingly wonder whether Romney -- a candidate whose credentials, pedigree and preparation ought on paper to have blown away an otherwise weak field of candidates -- has been ill served by his confident, well-paid team of advisers.
"Romney deserves a lot more out of his staff," said one senior Republican operative who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They have mishandled him. It has been a clumsy campaign that lacks a message and has relied on a crutch of negative ad spending to make up for its weakness."
Myopic, insular and overconfident, Team Romney has squandered the candidate's strengths and exacerbated his weaknesses, these critics charge.
Myopic, insular and overconfident, Team Romney has squandered the candidate's strengths and exacerbated his weaknesses, critics charge.
They point to specific strategic miscues: the failure to cultivate low-dollar donors; a lack of outreach to the conservative movement and the media generally; and the fateful decision to overlook the Feb. 7 contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where surprise wins for Rick Santorum catapulted him back into contention as Romney's principal challenger. The campaign has also repeatedly signaled that it's expecting the next primary to deal a knockout blow, only to be rebuked by too-close-for-comfort wins (Michigan and Ohio) or humbling defeats like this week's third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi.
But those who find fault with Romney's operation also see a larger failure to grasp the political terrain ahead of their candidate and adjust accordingly. The result is a campaign that has repeatedly been caught flat-footed by circumstances and events that should have been foreseeable, from questions about Romney's personal wealth to the standoffishness of hard-core conservatives.
"I think they're extremely competent at the tactical things. They run a tight ship in terms of the nuts and bolts," said John Weaver, the former strategist to John McCain and Jon Huntsman. "But their messaging is a head-scratcher at times. ... Can they grind it out, run more negative ads, do more robocalls, that kind of crap? Yeah, they can do that better than anyone else. But what has it got them?"
While this kind of second-guessing is endemic in politics, and all too easy in hindsight, the Republicans expressing these misgivings largely want Romney to win and are anxious about the way the primary has dragged on. They worry that Romney's team has shown little self-doubt even as its best-laid plans have gone repeatedly, flamboyantly awry -- and that those same tendencies could spell doom in a general election.
Another McCain campaign veteran, strategist Steve Schmidt, praised Romney's "staying power" and said the campaign has been "technically proficient." But, he noted, Romney has repeatedly "been put on defense" in ways that have obscured his positive pitch.
"The campaign hasn't articulated a very positive, forward-looking, voter-focused vision of what prosperity looks like in the 21st century," he said. "What are his plans that are understandable and connect with people's minds? Instead, what they've found themselves in is an ideological contest against Republicans, which is a difficult fight for Mitt Romney for a lot of reasons."
Another GOP presidential campaign veteran, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said the Romney campaign has shown a "perplexing" inability to prepare for the obvious.
The consultant pointed to Romney's testy interview on Fox earlier this week, in which he responded to a question about his money-related gaffes -- such as referring to his friends who own NFL teams in a talk-radio sports discussion -- by angrily insisting, "Guess what? I've made a lot of money, I've been very successful, and I'm not going to apologize for that."
It wasn't the first time Romney had faced a question of this nature, and yet he didn't have a gracious answer at his disposal. Preparing candidates to handle inevitable questions like that without looking defensive or mean is practically the reason political consultants were invented.
"Why is this so frickin' hard?" the consultant said. "Just say, 'I feel very fortunate, a lot of people helped me get where I am today, and the great thing about America is that anybody can make it like I did.'"
The consultant said none of Romney's current difficulties should have come as a surprise. "What part of this could they not have anticipated? That the conservative base wasn't going to love him? That he was going to get attacked for his wealth?" the consultant said. "He has let these guys [his opponents] back in the building a couple of different times. And it's not like he's beating the varsity."
Keith Appell, a Republican communications strategist who worked on Steve Forbes' 2000 presidential campaign, agreed: "It's surprising and troubling that Romney is having so much difficulty against men who are good candidates, but still second and third-tier," he said. "There is no Jeb Bush or Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee or Chris Christie. I think they've run a very good tactical campaign, but I do think they woefully underestimated the conservative reservations about Romney."