By Justin Sink - 08/27/12 09:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney has a knack for coming through when it matters most.
Although his campaign has been maligned as inconsistent and prone to error, and at times has seemed perilously close to self-inflicting a fatal wound, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee has shown he can make a comeback.
GOP strategists hope that the primaries gave Romney the confidence and experience he needs to upset President Obama in November, and that the nominee hasn’t burned through all nine of his lives.
Their worry is that Romney was aided in primary season by luck, a huge financial advantage and a relatively weak primary field of flawed rivals. Defeating Obama will be more difficult.
“If Romney wins this thing, the primary is going to be a big part of how he learned to be a major-party candidate, because he was tested in lots of different ways,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “He got pressed, and that forced him to focus and use greater discipline, and he came up when it mattered.”
Romney’s greatest triumphs during his fight for the nomination were the demonstration of the very skills — superior fundraising, the ability to capitalize on a gaffe, focused messaging — that will be necessary to win in the fall.
When Gingrich’s South Carolina victory threatened to derail Romney’s momentum — no Republican candidate had ever won the nomination and lost the South Carolina primary until this year — the eventual nominee flooded the Florida airwaves with overwhelming force, badly damaging Gingrich’s image in the state.
And when the former House Speaker proposed an ambitious and costly moon colony in a last-ditch appeal to the state’s Space Coast, Romney’s campaign quickly seized on and openly mocked the proposal. Topping it off, in a crucial debate, under the most pressure of his political career, Romney delivered his best performance yet, besting Gingrich, who is widely credited as the most accomplished debater in the field.
“Romney has the ability to do something interesting to his opponents, which is drive them berserk,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “In the Florida debate, he upped his game, and they just short-circuited Gingrich.”
Romney also held off a late surge from Santorum, who became mired in controversial statements on social issues. Declaring his native state of Michigan a must-win, Romney instead hammered his economic message, something his advisers admit is his core strength, and staved off Santorum’s momentum.
It’s that strategy that many believe is crucial to foiling the Obama campaign. If Democrats stumble, that, combined with a sour economy, could convince voters to switch occupants of the White House.
“He’s got to not only convince people that they need to fire the incumbent, but that they deserve firing and you deserve hiring,” said Mackowiak. “The only way a choice election works is if you prove you have a core competence and are a credible alternative.”
But while the primary campaign emphasized some of Romney’s strengths, it also exposed some of his weaknesses. Obama has effectively intensified attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and his refusal to release more tax returns — both issues first highlighted by his Republican rivals.
A primary process dragged out out by new rules and scheduling fostered the perception that Republicans had only begrudgingly rallied around Romney’s candidacy.
“That was the big issue for them. Even if Romney was technically the only guy in the race, it would have taken him until March or April to secure the nomination,” said O’Connell. “It hurt Romney because he was going against an incumbent and there was no challenge on their side.”
Republicans argue that the Obama team has already shown a tendency to commit unforced errors that can be seized on by Romney, pointing to the president’s “you didn’t build that” remark and Vice President Biden’s “chains” comment.
“Biden just gave him a huge opportunity with the ‘chains’ remark,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “That was a huge misstep and showed just how weak that ticket is, compared to a Romney-Ryan ticket that is defined by being able to stay on message.”
And Romney has become more successfully antagonistic. The campaign has targeted a memo by the Obama administration that would change the implementation of the welfare work requirement by providing waivers to some states. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have seized on this in their campaign speeches and in ads that accuse Obama of “gutting” bipartisan 1990s reforms.
Independent fact-checkers have questioned the charge — waivers are only granted to states that increase the number of welfare recipients who join the payrolls — but Romney has pressed on, drawing the ire of the president.
“It’s their way of getting back for every time Romney would discuss the tax code, someone asking him about his accounts in Bermuda,” said O’Connell.
But most crucial for Romney will be projecting confidence and competence in the clutch, and he might not again have as big a stage as he does later this week in Tampa.
“He’s going to have millions of viewers watching him [who] may not have heard of him except for attack ads,” said Bonjean. “The expectation level is high, and doing well has to be his No. 1 focus, but he’s shown that tough resolve already.”