Republicans sought to do damage control for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Tuesday after a senior adviser’s tap-dance on the healthcare mandate.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in an appearance on Fox News suggested Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom misspoke when he called the mandate a penalty and not a tax, while other Republicans suggested Fehrnstrom’s comments were merely a trial balloon.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I think sometimes we get obsessed over what different spokespeople will say,” Christie said of Fehrnstrom, a closer personal friend of Romney’s.

“It’s very important for us to distinguish between what a spokesperson might say on TV and what the candidate himself is going to say. I listen to Mitt Romney. And when Mitt Romney speaks, I see a candidate that’s now more self-confident, more self-assured, more on message than at any time during the campaign,” Christie continued.

He went on to insist that he had “thought all along it was a tax.”

Fehrnstrom angered many Republicans with his comments in a Monday interview on MSNBC because they conflicted with the emerging Republican argument that the mandate is part and parcel with a massive tax increase imposed by President Obama.

Republicans rallied around that argument after the Supreme Court ruled the healthcare mandate was constitutional because it was a tax. It represented the lone solace for many Republicans since it practically gift-wrapped anti-tax attack ads for the GOP.

For Romney, however, the tax message has problems since he championed a similar health law as Massachusetts governor.

Calling the mandate a tax, as a result, could lead to crowing that he raised taxes as governor. Romney’s campaign is also worried about attacks that he is a flip-flopper, and he consistently had described the mandate as a penalty.

Romney’s hopes are understandable, but Republicans said they are antithetical to the goals and instincts of their down-ticket allies. As a result, GOP strategists and fundraisers were still grumbling Tuesday that Romney should get back on message.

“They’re letting him and his campaign know about it,” said Republican strategist Chris Ingram said. “Absolutely there is backlash. It would take a very sharp arrow out of the Republican quiver, but Republican candidates across the country are not going to back down. The Supreme Court said it’s a tax, so it’s a tax, and all House and Senate Republicans running for reelection will continue to say it’s a tax.”

GOP strategists said the GOP was unlikely to back down from the argument regardless of Romney’s line of attack.

“Hill Republicans are not going to sacrifice their competitive advantage on the tax issue to provide cover for the Romney campaign on the issue. Your primary interest is making sure your opponent owns the largest tax increase in the history of the country,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

But Mackowiak said that Republicans knew there “was going to be some turbulence considering Romney's history here, and that was easily predictable.”

“Did it possibly decrease some of the enthusiasm that Republicans had? Yes, but part of that enthusiasm was going to wane anyways,” Mackowiak said.

Ingram suggested that the Romney campaign knows the distinction is untenable, but used Fehrnstrom to see what they could get away with.

The strategist pointed out that while Fehrnstrom called the mandate a fee, and Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg didn’t explicitly contradict the notion that Romney believed it to be a fee, that until Romney himself says something concrete, he’s free to correct his subordinates.

“I think it’s floating a trial balloon, just like with what Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Biden rips Trump transgender ban: Every qualified American should be allowed to serve Clinton book to double down on Russia, Comey message MORE came out and said before Obama changed his position on gay marriage,” Ingram said. “This was a very orchestrated trial balloon to have a senior level staffer state a position, and then it is relatively easy for a candidate to say he spoke out of line, or that he didn’t speak for us. It wouldn’t be as easy to handle something like this if Romney had said it.”

But in appearing off-message — and flouting Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who had focused attacks around the tax message — Romney may be risking alienating top donors, and putting campaign staff at risk. Both Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch and former GE chairman Jack Welch suggested on Twitter that Romney should shake up his campaign staff.

Fehrnstrom, who was also responsible for the infamous "Etch A Sketch" gaffe earlier this year, has drawn particular ire.

“Romney's not very well known on the Hill, Fehrnstrom is especially not well known, and he was already on thin ice,” said a Republican strategist who did not want to be named.

Realistically, Romney is unlikely to make any major changes. The core of his campaign staff has been with him since he was governor, and top personal advisers like Fehrnstrom are both longtime employees and personal friends.

But the candidate must be careful not to allow the confusion further distract from momentum the campaign was seemingly building in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision. Romney's team reported millions in online donations from tens of thousands of new donors in the hours after the court announced its controversial ruling.

“I would expect you’ll hear [Romney] come out and correct it next week,” Ingram said.