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."
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based media strategist, detected "a cultural bias among the top leadership of that campaign against the conservative base." One way this has been manifest, he said, was a notable lack of outreach to the conservative press. Rather than defending him, outlets like National Review and the Daily Caller are just as likely to be among Romney's harshest critics; columnists such as George Will and William Kristol are openly hostile. The fact that Romney's most reliable conservative defender is the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin -- an idiosyncratic blogger who's viewed skeptically by many in the movement -- is "a mockery," Wilson said.
"All of these little signifiers that would not have cost them a damn thing have added up and made things more difficult," he said. "They didn't even start going on Fox until they got in desperate trouble. Conservatives are going to be a vocal part of this election, and ignoring and belittling them is going to have negative consequences at the end of the day."
One Washington-based Republican adviser recounted an interaction in which a senior member of the Romney team, asked what the campaign planned to do to soften the class-based criticism of Romney, gave a blank look and snapped, "Nobody cares about that crap."
"It's clear they have some amazing blind spots," the adviser said. "They don't understand the flaws of their candidate and how damaging this class stuff is. They're just not self-aware at all." The adviser pointed to the way Romney's taxes were released -- hasty, sloppy and reactive, on an issue that should have been easy to foresee.
Romney the data-driven management consultant has surrounded himself with people who share his businesslike world view -- without a grander understanding of political leadership. As a result, they are oblivious to his liabilities. "They always seem stunned when something comes out about him," the adviser said. "It's always the same things they get surprised by."
Chip Felkel, a South Carolina-based veteran of the Bush campaigns, said the Romney campaign ought to be doing some tough introspection in the face of its setbacks. "Santorum's not winning these races because everybody views him as a good candidate," he said. "A lot of people are voting for Rick Santorum, not because they think he could win a general election, but because they don't want to vote for Romney."
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign's message at this stage consists mostly of insisting that they're winning based on their advantage in terms of delegates. "They are making a huge mistake talking about math," Felkel said. "Joe Six-Pack doesn't give a damn about delegate counts."
Another outside-the-Beltway Republican operative echoed that argument: "It is the principal job of the Mitt Romney campaign to become the consensus nominee of the ideological base of the party, not to pile up 1,144 delegates," the operative said.
The Romney camp continues to insist that everything is fine, that its reversals are mere misperceptions, and that he is rolling imperturbably to the nomination thanks to the delegate strategy.
Within campaign, there is "a degree of frustration," one insider said, but no sense of crisis. The team might not have expected to be in this particular spot, the insider said, but they are confident they're doing what they need to do to win. (Romney campaign officials declined to comment on the record for this story.)
"We are in this to win the nomination, and the way you get the nomination is to win 1,144 delegates," the insider said. "This is as well-run and well-structured an operation as any I've seen, and most importantly, it's a structure the candidate is comfortable with -- you can't underestimate that."
The campaign has resisted the idea of a staff shakeup -- the internal attitude is that "a shakeup would show weakness and sow chaos," Politico's Mike Allen reported after Tuesday's losses. It's probably true that any big moves now would be viewed as cosmetic and come too late to change the trajectory of the race.
There are also plenty of observers who think Romney's team has done the best it could under the circumstances. "I think he has a top-flight team that has encountered an electoral environment that is in constant flux," said Dave Carney, former top strategist to Rick Perry's presidential campaign. Asked if there were things they could have done differently, he replied, "Why of course, Mrs. Lincoln, we could have gone to a different performance."
But many Republicans on the sidelines of the race feel the general election slipping between the party's fingers as they watch Romney continue to stumble.
"This was a campaign built around the notion that Mitt Romney was going to be the nominee because he was the inevitable candidate and the only guy who could beat Obama," another longtime Republican strategist said. "Then he started losing, and it was shattering to the electability argument -- 'If he's inevitable, why isn't he winning?'
"Now they're just in a war of attrition," the strategist added. "They didn't shut it down early, and now this is the campaign they have."