Former President Bill Clinton said Mitt Romney will have a tougher time recovering from a bruising party primary than Clinton did two decades ago because voters are concerned about where he stands on the issues, rather than character concerns.
The two-term Democrat told ABC News in an interview released Monday that he doubted Romney could make the necessary pivot back to a more centrist campaign to woo voters already wary of perceived political opportunism.
“He started this campaign in the aftermath of that Tea Party victory in 2010, when all the people on the far right of the Republican Party actually believed a majority of the voters had embraced the specific things they were saying," Clinton said. "So it created a horrible dilemma for Romney. And the poor man who got in trouble for the 'Etch a Sketch' remark. That’s like the saying, ‘There is nothing more damaging in politics than telling the truth.’ I mean, the truth is, that’s what he’s gotta do.”
Clinton was referring to a comment made by Romney senior aide Eric Fehrnstom during an interview on CNN last month. Fehrnstrom, asked if Romney's efforts to woo conservative voters in the primary would hurt him in the general, said, "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
The Romney campaign later said Fehrnstrom was trying to say the campaign would shift focus to President Obama's record — rather than change its own opinions — but his political opponents on both sides of the aisle seized on the remark as further evidence of his alleged political opportunism.
The former president said Romney has a political tightrope to walk, needing to “convince the swing voters that he’ll be moderate enough and open enough and inclusive enough to be an effective president, and effective on the economy. And hope that the Republican base voters say, ‘Well, OK, so he maybe wasn’t as right-wing as he claimed to be in the primary. Still more conservative than President Obama. I guess I’ll vote for him anyway and I won’t stay home.'
"That’s a much harder job," said Clinton. "So I doubt if he can do it. But it’s going to be interesting to watch.”
Clinton added that Romney's challenges will be more difficult than his own during the 1992 campaign, where he had to address character- rather than policy-based concerns.
“Mr. Romney has a different challenge than I did,” Clinton said. “Even though he had a bruising primary and higher negatives and I did too. Mine was just one long character attack. It was a personal attack on me. You know, ‘You shouldn’t have this guy be president.’ ”
But Clinton said he was able to rebound from his bruising primary because “the American people are inherently fair. I named Al Gore. We reintroduced our economic plan. Then we reintroduced ourselves to the American people. But we never had to change what we were saying from primary to the general. The problem that Gov. Romney has, is his character attack was ‘You don’t really know what he believes. He did this, he says that.' "