A growing chorus of Republicans are questioning the wisdom of Mitt
Romney's campaign strategy of maintaining a lower profile and being less
effervescent than the former Massachusetts governor had been in his
Romney's effort to set a more lax pace in launching the Republican presidential cycle, and his deliberate game plan of picking and choosing his public availabilities, left the door open to other Republicans — namely, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — to enter the race and wage a credible challenge to Romney.
"Maybe it will work, but I've never thought you win the presidency by being cautious," said veteran GOP strategist Mark McKinnon. "Given all the challenges we face today, people today want bold leadership more than ever. Playing prevent defense may keep the opponents from scoring much, but it doesn't do much to excite the crowd."
"I've always been a great admirer of his. But he's really made, sadly, a limited effort in South Carolina," said South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (R), who had supported former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's (R) presidential bid. "He really has been absent."
The campaign's logic has been transparent from the outset: it has
always believed that by setting a later start day and by having a more
relaxed schedule, it would minimize public fatigue of Romney, and limit
the rate at which the staff would burn through its fundraising, allowing
Romney to stockpile cash instead.
"Right now, your greatest enemy is overexposure. People get tired of seeing the same person day in and day out," he said in early June on CNN. "And until Labor Day hits, I'm going to be pretty quiet."
After Labor Day, as promised, Romney's campaign will kick into higher gear; he will outline a plan for jobs and the economy on Sept. 6 in Nevada, an opportunity to counter President Obama's own jobs speech that week.
"Mitt Romney considers Rick Perry a friend and believes he will add a lot to the discussion during the primary. But he is going to stay the course and keep his focus on President Obama’s failed economic policies," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "This country needs a president who understands how the economy works and has private-sector experience. That is why Mitt Romney is running.”
But Republicans still wonder whether it would have been more beneficial for Romney to invest a little more time and effort this summer in solidifying his status as the campaign's front-runner.
The former Massachusetts governor would have been able to do just that by participating in the Ames straw poll earlier this month. Romney won the event in 2007 but skipped it this time around, explaining that he wouldn't participate in any of these preliminary contests. But Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said Romney could have placed first or second at the Iowa event if he had tried, and scared off other potential challengers if he had done so.
"If Mitt Romney had competed aggressively in the Iowa Straw poll, then it would have been harder for another candidate to enter the race," King said, referring in particular to Perry. "The message would have been that you would have been too late to enter the race if Romney had competed in the straw poll."
Romney leads competitors for the Republican nomination, as he has throughout the cycle. But he's never built his advantage into a commanding one; the latest Gallup poll has Romney in first place at 17 percent, and Perry's nipping at his heels, at 15 percent.
Not all Republicans think Romney's strategy is a bad one.
"I think he's been running a very smart campaign, speaking out when it counts, focusing his critiques on Obama," said Fred V. Malek, a longtime Republican operative. Malek suggested that Perry's decision to enter the race was independent of Romney's performance, which he praised as "smart" for its focus on New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
Indeed, Romney has focused the bulk of his efforts in New Hampshire, where he enjoys the biggest advantage in primary polling. Unlike 2008, he is not lavishing as much attention on Iowa, opting instead to pepper the map with trips to states with other early primaries, like South Carolina, Florida, Nevada and Michigan, among others.
"The difference now, in 2012, is that there's one big issue before the American public, and that's the economy," said Kevin Madden, the spokesman for Romney's 2008 campaign. That campaign, Madden said, was driven by a strategy that focused on raising Romney's name ID by engaging on virtually every issue.
"I think the 2012 Romney campaign is much more focused, and much more methodical and deliberative in articulating Gov. Romney's vision on that issue," he explained.
But allies of Perry have cited a sense that Romney had been absent as part of the reasoning behind the Texas governor's late entry into the campaign. An increasing number of Republicans portray the primary as an emerging battle between Romney and Perry, with the other candidates — including Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) — falling to the margins.
"I think he's been way too timid. He ran a Rose Garden Strategy with Republican primary voters," said a prominent GOP pollster who's inclined to support Perry. The pollster likened Romney's strategy to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's (R) 2008 strategy of neglecting early states in favor of the fifth contest of the cycle, Florida's primary.
"Gov. Romney seems to be vacant from the playing field, and maybe that's going to be a good strategy for him," Perry's top South Carolina adviser, Katon Dawson, said last week in an interview. "But you've got to win a primary first before you get to the big dance."