Romney steps outside his comfort zone

Mitt Romney is stepping out of his comfort zone, giving a Sunday morning interview to a network that is not Fox News and conducting a travel-intensive bus tour.

It's a move of considerable risk and great potential reward for Romney, who, since effectively clinching the nomination in April, has run an increasingly conservative campaign, rarely deviating from his standard stump speech or offering more than cursory access to the press.

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So far, playing it safe has paid dividends for the presumptive Republican nominee. While President Obama has struggled to explain away verbal gaffes like his "the private sector is doing fine" comment, Romney has been edging up in the polls and avoided some of the more memorable blunders of his primary campaign.

But the decision to appear on CBS's "Face the Nation" this weekend — coupled with a bus tour through swing states that is likely to provide more unscripted moments than Romney's current, deliberate campaign schedule — signals that the GOP hopeful is looking not simply to avoid turnovers, but also to put some points on the board.

"For Romney, it was important to focus on fundraising and let Obama deal with his negative issues without Romney getting in the way,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “But while it’s important that the negative issues are reinforced around Obama, it’s also important Romney gets out on offense.”

It could be a tough shift to make for a Romney campaign that has thrived on discipline in recent days — sometimes to seemingly excessive lengths. At campaign events, Romney sticks to his familiar remarks — using a teleprompter whenever he does deviate from his stump speech — and staff members have shielded reporters from listening in on the candidate’s rope-line discussions with voters.

Members of the media chortled when the campaign had reporters removed from a question-and-answer session with business executives at the Newseum on Wednesday — a D.C. institution dedicated to the freedom of the press. (The request was reportedly made on behalf of the organization hosting the event, and Obama did the same thing when visiting earlier in the year.)

The strategy is straight out of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) playbook from late in the 2008 race, when a series of gaffes and off-message statements had driven his campaign off kilter. The Arizona lawmaker, who previously had been a gregarious presence on the campaign trail, frequently bantering with the traveling press and supporters, restricted access and looked to focus his message.

And the Romney campaign has seen the danger of improvisation.

The lone ding against Romney in recent weeks has come when the candidate, attacking the president on the fly for his “doing fine” remark, claimed that the “message of Wisconsin” was to reject Obama’s call for stimulus spending to fund “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.”

Democrats quickly pounced, slightly slowing the momentum Romney earned from the president’s gaffe.

But Republican strategists say that for Romney to solidify his gains over the past month, he has to articulate his economic vision and improve the way he’s personally perceived. That requires attempting to reach voters outside his base.

“The ground is better now than it’s ever been for Romney, and it’s a good time to put him out there a little bit,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.

That strategy inevitably is fraught with instances where a candidate could stumble and halt his momentum.

“Any time you step forward proactively and aggressively, you are opening yourself up to issues and the possibility of making yourself the issue,” Mackowiak said.

But, strategists say, the rewards ultimately outweigh the risks.

Of particular importance are the rural swing-state voters that Romney will target on his upcoming bus tour. While a grueling road schedule can grind down a candidate's defenses, the path to Republican victory requires rallying the conservative base.

“Rural voters are more insulated than suburban and urban voters and have a tendency to talk amongst themselves more and more,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “He’s going to have to get out there and get some face-time with them, but it’s only going to help him.”

Republicans are also optimistic that Romney has learned from a primary process where he would often undermine significant victories with wince-inducing gaffes.

“I don’t buy into the notion that Romney’s a robot, but robots do have advantages — I’m thinking maybe of the Terminator model that learns and improves,” Mackowiak said.