WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney faces challenges in convincing undecided voters that his policies would help the middle class, and that he can relate to the common man, but he has not often needed to persuade Americans that he is a leader.
Yet the Republican nominee's response to cascading events in the Middle East last week damaged him in an area where he should be strong.
The moment of maximum negative impact, however, has been largely missed. Much of the conservative punditry is still raging at the mainstream press for hitting Romney for "jumping the gun" on Tuesday night, when he issued a statement tying the White House to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Romney's campaign did not know, however, when they sent out their statement Tuesday night, that the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, had been killed. And the point Romney was making at the time -- that President Barack Obama's foreign policy stance of greater engagement has failed to make the rest of the world appreciate the U.S. any more than before -- has been embraced by conservatives who have rushed to Romney's defense.
So while the left may dislike Romney's critique, and while it was a bit of a reach for the Romney campaign to say that a tweet from an embassy official under siege in Cairo was tantamount to an Obama administration policy, that was not the moment when Romney hurt his image as a strong leader.
Rather, it was on Wednesday morning, a few hours after Stevens' death had been announced, that Romney demonstrated a lapse in political judgment.
Once Stevens' death became known, the significance of what was happening overseas ratcheted up and the political context shifted. What was demanded of Romney was sobriety and a recognition that the United States had absorbed a psychic blow.
But Romney appeared clueless.
He was, no matter what, going to get questions that morning about his statement the night before. He could have had a leadership moment by forcefully dismissing those questions and stressing that it was a time for grieving and reflection.
But the Romney campaign was concerned that if their candidate tried to move past his Tuesday night statement, he would be pilloried by the press. And Romney has always shown a tendency to want to explain himself.
So as the nation reeled from first death of an ambassador abroad since 1988, Romney said a few words in his prepared remarks about grieving for the dead, and then engaged with reporters' questions about his criticism of the president's foreign policy. As the country mourned, the already image-challenged Republican was seen by millions launching partisan attacks.
"I'm sitting here thinking, there's a lot at stake here guys," said one Romney fundraiser, who asked not to be identified so he could speak frankly. "I couldn't believe they were going to do that."
If events overseas continue to unravel, Obama will be forced to deal more directly with the issue of whether his foreign policy has failed. But debates over policy outcomes can sometimes do less to shape voter attitudes than do key moments in the campaign.
Romney seemed to have realized his mistake by the next day, Thursday, when he spoke to nearly 3,000 supporters in Fairfax, Va. He emphasized that the nation was "in mourning" and toned down his critique of the president's foreign policy. But because it was such an about face from the day before, it came off as pro forma. And his subsequent comments that the White House and he were on the same page in condemning the communications that came out of the U.S. embassy in Egypt made his backtracking look even more pronounced.
In Fairfax, Romney also allowed a heckler to rattle him. He told the crowd that he wanted to have a moment of silence for Stevens and the three other slain Americans, "but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent so we're going to keep on going."
Many politicians, and certainly those with presidential-level political instincts, would have known that few people would interrupt a moment of silence, and that if they did, it would give Romney all the upper hand he needed to dismiss the heckler. Romney consistently fails to capitalize on moments like this that require improvisation.
This isn't a decisive issue. It does, however, complicate his already steep challenge in communicating with and persuading undecided voters.
Leadership, in fact, is the idea at the heart of the broader case that Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), are now trying to make against Obama.
"We need a strong America. Where is American leadership? And I intend to lead an America that is strong, that helps lead the world," Romney said Thursday in Fairfax.
Ryan, in his speech at the GOP convention, promised: "We will not duck the tough issues, we will lead."
But even on matters of substance, Romney has come under broad criticism from many in his own party for running a vacuous and low-risk campaign. Many who thought his choice of Ryan signaled a new and bolder phase of his campaign have said that he has gone back to vague platitudes on the stump, sticking mostly to blaming Obama for the lousy economy.
And while conservatives have railed against the media for not covering Obama's response to the upheaval more closely or asking what his policies have contributed to the situation, the Romney campaign did not in the last few days join, in any significant way, the effort to make the foreign policy case against Obama.
The Romney campaign has not publicly pushed the media to more closely examine Obama's response and his broader foreign policy record. In fact, Romney's weekly podcast on Saturday was about "the need for strong American leadership," but Romney criticized Obama over his policy toward China rather than anything related to the current events plastered across every front page in the country.
That has left Republican surrogates not working for the Romney campaign to make the case on its behalf.
"President Obama waited 15 hours before speaking out about a developing mid-East situation involving multiple U.S. embassies. His first words were to condemn Mitt Romney. Why isn't the media asking, 'Where was Obama for 15 hours while the storm developed?'" Richard Grenell, a spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations who briefly advised the Romney campaign, said in an email.
The irony of Romney's missteps is that the 65-year old former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive has led a career marked by leadership successes.
"His leadership has been obvious to the people who know him best and who've known him the longest," Douglas Anderson, a family friend and a Democrat, told Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, in their book, "The Real Romney."
Add to that the fact that the most substantial recent insight into Obama's leadership was the release of Bob Woodward's latest book, which argued that the president abdicated a leadership role for much of his presidency by not proposing a solution to the nation's long-term debt.
Romney has shined as a leader in the Mormon church, starting in 1968 when, at 21, he took over the church's mission in France after its leader was seriously injured, and his wife killed, in a car accident that occurred while Romney was driving. (Romney himself was badly hurt but stayed behind and rallied his fellow missionaries after recovering.)
"You saw this exceptional leadership in Mitt to inspire, uplift, bring people to focus, remember what they're about," Dane McBride, a fellow missionary in France, told Kranish and Helman.
And Romney has done it repeatedly. He saved Bain & Company from bankruptcy in 1991 and led Bain Capital to large profits. He helped turn around the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics after it was mired in debt and corruption scandals. And he passed landmark health care legislation during his time as Massachusetts governor.
But the measure of a political candidate is the degree to which he or she convinces voters of their qualifications. And Romney did not help himself last week.
Polling has long shown Romney's greater challenge to be that voters see him as an out-of-touch, wealthy patrician who doesn't understand the challenges of everyday Americans.
But even before this past week, a Washington Post/ABC News poll from September 7-9 showed 50 percent saw Obama as the "stronger leader," compared to 42 percent who thought Romney had the advantage.
Fair or not, this past week was a defining episode in the campaign. The Romney campaign is hoping, nonetheless, that its impact will be negligible.
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