Mitt Romney's campaign enjoyed a jolt of momentum Thursday thanks to a Democratic strategist who started a political firestorm by criticizing Ann Romney as a stay-at-home mom.
The fight rallied conservatives to Romney’s side and energized his campaign just as the general-election campaign is getting started, and put the Obama camp on the defensive after weeks of being on the attack.
“The campaign is happy,” said one GOP strategist close to the Romney campaign. “We’re not under any illusions that this is a game-changing moment for the campaign, but obviously every day is a fight and you want to win every hour of very day.”
The strategist called the comments a “natural organic moment that energized the base,” and said the campaign’s quick reaction showed it was ready for the general election campaign against President Obama, who's known as a tough campaigner.
“It clearly illustrates that this is a team that’s ready for the big game, this is a battle-tested team that only got better during the primary and is ready now to engage at the general-election level,” he said.
Obama’s campaign had been on the attack for weeks on issues relevant to female voters, who could prove a powerful voting bloc in November. Polls show Romney trailing Obama badly with women.
The Romney team is aware of the problem. The former Massachusetts governor has surrounded himself with female surrogates at recent events but his campaign stumbled on the issue Wednesday. During a press call arguing Obama’s economic policies had hurt women, aides couldn’t answer whether Romney supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The campaign eventually clarified that Romney would not change the current law, but Democrats had a field day with the issue.
However, Rosen’s comments that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” gave Romney’s campaign a chance to change the narrative — and the campaign seized it, launching a Twitter handle for Ann Romney, getting her on Fox News Thursday morning and altering an already-scheduled press conference with top female Romney surrogates on the economy to also include criticism of Rosen’s statements.
"It was very insulting for President Obama’s adviser and DNC strategist Hilary Rosen to make the comments" on Ann Romney, said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). "I was very disappointed by the comments that were made and think they’re very insulting to dismiss the hard work women do in raising children."
Rosen is not officially part of the Obama campaign but is a longtime party strategist and insider, and those on the conference call said she's visited the White House more than 30 times during the Obama administration.
Democrats, meanwhile, squirmed as Rosen refused until late in the afternoon to walk back her remarks. Top Obama advisers including David Axelrod, Jim Messina and Stephanie Cutter rebuked the remark immediately, and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) soon followed suit, saying she was “disappointed’ in Rosen’s comments. First lady Michelle Obama even weighed in, using her Twitter account to express her respect for moms.
Donna Brazile, a former chairwoman of the DNC, said the Romney campaign was using Rosen's comments as a "distraction."
"We live in the age of selective outrage, and Ms. Rosen is the latest star. Guess what? How is this issue or debate advancing the cause of women in the workplace or women (or men) who chose to stay at home to raise their children? It's not what you do, it's about the fact we are women and underpaid no matter what we do," she told The Hill.
Ali Harden, a top Republican strategist who worked closely with former first lady Laura Bush, said she was “infuriated” by Rosen's comments.
She likened them to remarks from Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, during the 2004 presidential campaign, when she said Laura Bush did not have a “real” job. Harden pointed out that after immediate outrage Kerry apologized for the remarks.
“Women should never be tearing each other apart,” she said.
Harden said that too much of a focus on social issues could hurt both parties in an election in which most people ere focused on jobs. “The social issues people like to go into matter some but the issues important to everyone are healthcare, the economy and energy.”
Rosen offered an apology late Thursday afternoon, after the damage was done.
Romney’s strategist said that the flare-up meant the campaign could pivot back to their core message: Jobs and the economy. That strategy was already evident during the Thursday conference call, when Romney’s surrogates repeatedly slammed Obama’s economic policies.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said Obama's attacks against Romney on women's issues had been "designed to distract women from the issues, to scare them."
Ayotte echoed those remarks.
“As you look at where we are, women have faced massive job losses under this administration and the policies of this president have failed women voters and men too,” the senator said. “These are issues that impact all Americans.”