It's Mr. No Comment Versus Ms. Accessible

How Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann meet the press

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Of all the reporters’ questions lobbed at him Wednesday on his way out of the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, there was only one that Mitt Romney would address: “How do you expect to be president if you don’t answer questions from the press?”

The presumed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination retorted: “I answer questions from the press almost every day.” But, as reporters pursued him down the halls of the Hart Senate Office Building, Romney added that he prefers not to conduct interviews “on the fly.”

Two days earlier, political journalists didn’t need to run the Romney steeplechase. Their hands were full reporting how another candidate was dealing with the consequences of speaking “on the fly.” Having mistakenly suggested that she shared a hometown with John Wayne (it was actually not the actor, but serial killer John Wayne Gacy  who once lived in Waterloo, Iowa), Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., had added another item  to her already full tally of gaffes.

Romney and Bachmann are dominating the media coverage of the Republican presidential race right now with very different strategies for handling the Fourth Estate. He has few getting-to-know-you moments with the press and just as few bloopers to his name; she is known for opening up anytime, anyplace, to anyone -- and her slip-ups could fill a small book.

Which approach is smarter? In a political climate trending toward grassroots and a 24-hour news cycle hungry for sound bites, two veteran campaign strategists told National Journal, Bachmann’s way might win out in 2012.

“Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney are the two candidates at the opposite sides of the spectrum,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who helped then-President Clinton navigate the public-relations crisis that followed his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “And it’s so, so important to find a blend of the two, because how you interact with the press becomes a proxy as to whether you’re being accessible to the public.”

Longtime Republican consultant Ron Bonjean concurred that candidates have to find that “razor’s-edge balance” between seeming manufactured and being a loose cannon.

“If you’re a Romney and you script out your campaign too much, you can get yourself into trouble and accused of being canned,” Bonjean said. “But then there’s Michele Bachmann, who has a reputation of being highly accessible and saying exactly what she thinks at the very given moment. On one hand, she comes across as very genuine; on the other, the gaffes she sometimes creates as a result can alienate primary voters wondering if she could be president of the United States.”

A recent Des Moines Register poll showed Romney and Bachmann tied virtually neck-and-neck in Iowa. In a year when the prevailing trend is toward tea party-fuelled populism and in an election process dominated by such early-voting retail states, Lehane said, “If I were going to pick between the two, I’d go with the Bachmann model versus the Romney model. Particularly if you’re trying to win a primary.”

He noted that “the Bachmann model of being open and accessible ultimately is consistent with the brand of retail politics, projects that you’re the person who is out there and available, and will help them develop a relationship with the press that will end up covering them in a very different way.”

Romney, on the other hand, is exhibiting signs of “front-runneritis,” said Lehane, “where they try to protect themselves. They go into a cocoon; they don’t want to engage in the hurly-burly that is the very definition of an Iowa caucus or a New Hampshire primary.”

Bonjean agreed that Romney is a textbook example of a candidate focused on “staying on message.”

According to Lehane, Bachmann is still in “spring-training territory,” and he predicts that the public-relations benefits of her accessibility will overcome her misstatements. But he also pointed to past campaigns as reminders that cozying up to the media can be a double-edged sword.

“If [Bachmann] can’t overcome the gaffes, then she’s going to run into the issue that John McCain did,” Lehane said, referring to the terminally candid 2008 GOP presidential nominee. “You fly too close to the sun, you end up getting scorched.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.