Richard Blumenthal has escaped.
After the New York Times story that could have torn down his Senate bid, the Democrat is still crushing his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, in the polls. The Times broke its story about the Connecticut attorney general having said he served "in Vietnam" on May 17, and, after a Rasmussen survey the next day showed him in serious danger with a 3% lead, three polls since have shown him rebounding comfortably. On Thursday, Rasmussen showed him up 23%, while Quinnipiac had found that 61% didn't think the Vietnam story would affect their votes.
How did he do it? His method offers some guidance for how politicians can avert the hazards of a nasty news cycle, and here are the ways Blumenthal pulled off his escape:
- Squash it right away. Almost as soon as the Times story broke, Blumenthal was in front of cameras addressing it. The Times published its story on a Thursday night, and his campaign called it an "outrageous distortion" that same night, planting a general seed of doubt--a vital move to push back on a news item that required close reading for the context and pattern of Blumenthal's statements. The campaign made it clear that Blumenthal would be in front of cameras the next morning, and he was, flanked by veterans. It's a lesson Rand Paul could have used as he struggled with the Civil Rights Act question for what seemed like a decade.
- Impugn the sourcing and context of the story. Blumenthal may have been helped by the fact that The New York Times got its story from McMahon's campaign, which told people it had supplied the scoop. It also probably helped that the Times had in its possession, as the AP and Politico reported, the full video of the Blumenthal speech it posted on its website, in which Blumenthal says, before the "in Vietnam" characterization, that he served "during the Vietnam era in the Marine Corps." All this helped create a backlash of skepticism about the Times report, which was pushed out by Blumenthal's allies.
- Be overshadowed by a massive environmental catastrophe. Blumenthal was big news on Friday, but that day and into the weekend BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continued to heat up as a story--one that continues to be much more serious for the nation than Blumenthal's statements about Vietnam. On the Friday Blumenthal appeared on camera, stories were published about oil threatening Florida coastlines and the Louisiana fishing industry. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared before a Senate committee and said blame for the spill rests both with industry and regulators. Awful news for the Gulf ecology and fishermen; good news for Blumenthal.
- Be from a state that wants to elect a Democrat anyway. Let's face it, Connecticut is a blue state. The people of Connecticut are not naturally inclined to elect a Republican. If this had been a closer race in a purple state--if Blumenthal hadn't led by 33% before the Times story--this may have stuck to him more problematically.
- Don't apologize--yet. The critical moment of Blumenthal's press conference came when a reporter asked him if he should apologize. The veterans behind him and elsewhere in the room started shouting "Nooooo!" as Blumenthal hesitated to respond. The attorney general didn't apologize. Instead, he repeated that he "regrets" misspeaking and left it at that. It demonstrated that Blumenthal had the support of the people in the room, and he didn't need to back down right then. He actually would have let them down if he did. Blumenthal would apologize the next week, speaking to a New Haven Independent reporter and a handheld camera, one on one, outside the opening of a homeless veterans shelter. It was a private, informal setting in which to offer the apology he had previously declined to give, and Blumenthal got to have it both ways--he didn't let down those veterans in the room, and he is now on record as having said "I'm sorry" as the story continues to be talked about. It shows that carefully choosing the words and venue for the actual apology can go a long way.