Romney shows first signs of strain

Mitt Romney’s campaign showed signs of strain this week as Newt Gingrich rose in the polls, Democrats increased their attacks and the former Massachusetts governor stumbled in a national interview.

Romney’s strength lies in his ability to stay focused on his economic message and avoid being sucked into other fights.

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But a series of rare hiccups this week — including a contentious interview with Fox News host Bret Baier and an over-the-top response to Democratic attacks — have shown some cracks in his operation.

“It certainly hasn’t been a good week,” said Al Cardenas, who worked for Romney in 2008 but has remained officially neutral in the race because he now runs the American Conservative Union. 

Strategists say no long-term damage has been done, but caution that Romney needs to get back on message soon — especially with the early-nominating contests approaching (the Iowa caucus is Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary is Jan. 10).

“He’s run an almost flawless race up to this point, and this week for the first time you saw a series of missteps by the campaign and the candidate,” said one unaffiliated senior Republican strategist. “What led him to have the bad interview is what’s dangerous — getting concerned about Gingrich, not being as disciplined and getting agitated. If these are a pattern that continues over the upcoming weeks, he could have a problem. His strength is his [message] discipline and being able to talk about the economy. If he gets undisciplined and talks about other things that’s going to be a problem.”

Part of what has thrown the Romney campaign for a loop is Gingrich’s unexpected front-runner status. The former House Speaker stumbled several times out of the starting gate, and his campaign was left for dead. But several strong debate performances and his refusal to attack his fellow Republicans has helped boost Gingrich to the top of the polls.

Democrats, meanwhile, finally got under Romney’s skin with a minor ad buy attacking him for being a flip-flopper. In the interview with Fox News that day, Romney grew exasperated with questions about his shifts on policy views ranging from abortion to climate change. Afterward he confronted Baier and told him the questioning was “over-aggressive” and “uncalled for,” according to an account by Baier.

His campaign also launched a heavy response to the Democratic ad that some observers saw as an overreaction by his team. The campaign set up a dozen conference calls in a full-court press against the Democratic charges. The Democratic National Committee put little money behind the ad, and the reaction likely drew more attention to the charges than if Romney’s campaign had simply ignored them.

“You can tastefully gloat about the DNC deciding to target your campaign already rather than reacting like he did,” Cardenas said. “He could have handled that differently.”

Romney also faced criticism for an ad released last week that took a statement made by President Obama out of context — most of the media conversation regarding the ad focused on the mischaracterization rather than Romney’s arguments.

Romney spokesman Ryan Williams disagreed that the fight with the DNC had hurt Romney.

“Any day we’re engaging Barack Obama and contrasting Romney’s record with his failures is a great day for our campaign,” he said.

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Williams, showing the campaign’s characteristic discipline, declined to discuss the Baier interview and instead focused on the month ahead. 

“We’re continuing the same strategy we had at the beginning: We’re on the same plan we laid out months ago,” he said. “We’re in New Hampshire on Saturday, we continue to roll out big endorsements and we’re continuing our steady progress.”

Romney had some high points this week: He secured endorsements from a key trio of Cuban-American Florida legislators and a top New Hampshire Republican. But the Fox interview and the back-and-forth with Democrats dominated most conversations about the candidate. 

“The question is, is this just a bad week or the onset of a tough period, a new phase of the campaign in which he’s increasingly on the attack, off his game a little bit and unable to deliver the consistent message he has been saying?” asked the unaffiliated Republican strategist. “People for the first time are seeing the campaign go through a bit of a rough patch. If that rough week becomes a rough month you’ve got a problem.”