Will Gaffes and Disarray Sink Mitt Romney?

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to reporters about the secretly taped video from one of his campaign fundraising events in Costa Mesa, Calif., Monday, Sept. 17, 2012.    (National Journal)

Mitt Romney isn't losing because of gaffes and internal friction. But he eventually could be.

Stories about campaign meltdowns are common for political operations with eroding poll numbers. But they are more a symptom of a struggling campaign than a cause of the struggles. The real danger for Romney is that the squabbles and missteps are now center stage and conveying the impression of a campaign that is flailing as it tries to oust an incumbent president.

The Romney-in-disarray narrative ignited with a Politico story on Sunday night about internal campaign conflicts. Then came the leak on Monday of a damaging video from a private fundraiser. It shows Romney dismissing all of President Obama's supporters -- 47 percent of the country, he says -- as people who want the government to give them handouts and will never be persuaded to be self-reliant.

Beyond Romney's self-inflicted wounds, and for all the dire economic news, Obama retains a number of distinct advantages. Americans traditionally are inclined to reelect their presidents, and he remains personally popular. He has the power of incumbency and has spent four years preparing for reelection. And he has an ally in one of the country's most popular public figures, former President Clinton.

In an election with so few undecideds that both campaigns are putting a premium on turning out their bases, Obama can rely on the fact that the country has more Democrats than Republicans, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. What's more, he added, the GOP's inability to appeal to minority voters is casting a shadow over its future. "The Democratic base is growing and the Republican base is shrinking," he said.

The revelation of Romney campaign conflicts and missteps in the Politico story came after sustained criticism of Romney's convention and message, and after numerous polls showed Obama opening up a lead. Seven GOP strategists either did not respond to requests to talk about the Romney campaign for this story or would speak only on background. And that was before the leak of the video.

One senior Republican consultant said part of the problem is that after fending off an array of underfunded, error-prone GOP challengers earlier this year, Romney is simply facing the reality of battling a good candidate running a good campaign. "It's not the Republican primary anymore," the consultant said.

Still, some Republicans argue that despite the internal skirmishes, the race remains very winnable for Romney. Fickle public polls, particularly those taken in the immediate aftermath of the Democrats' convention, are a silly way to judge a campaign's performance, said GOP strategist Curt Anderson. "This notion that seems to have overtaken at least in this town that the campaign is over is crazy. It's just nutty," Anderson said.

He has a point. Imagine if the Gallup tracking poll, which last week showed a major post-convention bounce for Obama, reports later this week that the race is once again deadlocked. It's a plausible scenario -- the survey found Obama's lead had already shrunk by more than half to 3 points by Monday -- and one that could make the recent handwringing seem silly in retrospect.

Anderson expressed disgust with the dissidents in his party. "You're in politics, you're on one side or another, and you have a nominee -- whether you're a wild fan of his -- and it's two months before election, you don't go out and trash the nominee in the paper. I just think it's pitiful."

A blow-up in a presidential campaign is almost more the rule than the exception. It happened twice to John McCain during his last White House run -- first in 2007, when he was forced to radically restructure his campaign after it ran out of money, and later when recriminations over his pick of Sarah Palin as running mate roiled under the surface.

John Kerry replaced his campaign manager in November of 2003, while Al Gore moved his entire operation out of Washington and into Nashville a few months before the Democratic primaries began. Bob Dole fired many of his campaign's leading advisers amid a tougher-than-expected primary fight in February 1996.

That those campaigns are remembered for their implosions is due in no small part to the fact that they all lost. The blow-ups might not explain why they  lost, but they didn't help, according to a veteran of two of them, Tad Devine. "It is a very bad moment when instead of doing what you should be doing, which is concentrating on getting out your message, you're spending a lot of energy saving yourself," said Devine, who served as a senior adviser to the Gore and Kerry campaigns. "It really is an enormously time-consuming situation."

And seven weeks out from the general election, there's not a lot of time to waste.