Under Pressure, Romney Stays the Course

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His party worries that he's losing the election, but Romney appears no nimbler or more aggressive than before.

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Reuters

FAIRFAX, Virginia -- Before the campaign was swallowed up by international events this week, the theme of the week was Republican panic. President Obama was looking strong coming out of the conventions, Mitt Romney was running out of time, and the GOP was beginning, rightly or wrongly, to feel the election slipping away.

The ur-example of this widespread sentiment came Thursday in Joe Scarborough's column in Politico, titled "The Problem with Mitt" -- a 1,200-word cri de coeur from a frustrated partisan who sees his candidate snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. "Voters who like moderates can't trust him. Conservatives who are desperate for victory don't believe him," Scarborough writes. "And the election Republicans should be winning seems to be slipping further from their grasp."

Romney's clumsy response to Tuesday's attacks on American installations in North Africa didn't help matters -- though an ongoing, out-of-hand crisis overseas also has the potential to damage Obama politically. But if his aggressive reaction to international events was meant to signal a new, more aggressive posture on the part of his campaign, that wasn't evident on the stump Thursday, when Romney was back to business as usual.

But for a brief, toned-down few sentences about the need for American strength in the world -- in which he did not mention or explicitly criticize Obama -- Romney was back to his usual talking points, an 18-minute speech that focused almost exclusively on the economy. He was briefly interrupted by a heckler shouting "Why are you politicizing Libya?", causing him to lose track of words for a bit: "What a tragedy to lose such a wonderful, wonderful, uh, wonderful people that have been so wonderful, and appreciate their service for the country," was the resulting sentence that came out. "I would offer a moment of silence, but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent, so we're going to keep on going."

Romney's comment on world events included no reference to the Obama Administration's supposed apology to the embassy attackers in Cairo. "As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we're at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events," he said, segueing into a call for more defense spending.

Romney was introduced by four women speakers -- three local business owners plus an unemployed woman -- and the backdrop to his outdoor stage was a set of bleachers on which stood about 50 exclusively female supporters. To his left, a banner bearing the words "The Romney-Ryan Plan for a Stronger Middle Class" was decorated with an illustration of a white picket fence. The economically focused appeal to women of middle incomes could hardly have been more overt.

In a way, it was odd Romney didn't reprise his harsh blast at Obama's foreign policy here. The pundits may have frowned on it, but if there was one group that ate it up, it was the Republican base. The voters at Romney's event Thursday were a deeply base-partisan bunch, many spouting Glenn Beck-vintage anti-Obama conspiracy theories about things like FEMA concentration camps; most said they loved the sight of Romney taking it to the president. "Somebody had to. Somebody had to say something," 52-year-old Patricia Hurtado told me. "I have yet to hear anybody from the Obama Administration say that what [the attackers] did was wrong."

But instead, Romney moved on as if the whole incident had never happened -- a tacit acknowledgment, it seemed, that the whole foreign-policy adventure on Wednesday didn't go exactly as planned.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve was announcing its latest round of quantitative easing, a development supposedly in Romney's comfort zone, the economy. On his campaign plane leaving Virginia, Romney hugged a reporter who was celebrating her birthday, but ignored questions about the latest news. If worried Republicans were looking for a nimbler, more aggressive Romney campaign, they didn't see it Thursday.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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