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Mitt Romney Arms Race: Obama Fundraising Forcing Frantic Pace, Tough Choices

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Mitt Romney steps up the campaign pace after reports show President Barack Obama fundraising success.
Mitt Romney steps up the campaign pace after reports show President Barack Obama fundraising success.

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Mitt Romney is discovering the fierce urgency of now.

Faced with a widening gap in key swing state polls, a campaign war chest less impressive than originally thought, and a narrowing window in which to turn the whole enterprise around, Romney and his campaign have shifted gears.

On Thursday, the speed with which Romney’s high command in Boston turned on a comment by President Barack Obama -- dispatching the candidate to a rally in Sarasota armed with attack lines on comments made barely an hour earlier -- demonstrated an intensity that has not always been in evidence.

And Romney will hit the campaign trail next week with running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for a three-day bus tour, their first extended trip together since August.

Romney this week began a stretch of more public campaign appearances, something Republicans have been pining for. Campaign rallies have been rare for Romney since the Republican convention, as he focused more time on fundraising and preparing for his three debates with Obama in October.

Romney has held just 13 public campaign events -- rallies or planned speeches -- in the past 20 days, according to a review of official campaign advisories and pool reports. Two events were canceled, including a stop in Colorado scrapped because of a plane crash at the airport and a rally that was turned into a press conference to deal with issues in the Middle East.

During that same time period, three days of which overlapped with the Democratic convention, Romney held an identical number of fundraisers: 13. He had 10 interviews and press availabilities, though those are just the ones publicized by the campaign and documented in the pool reports. Several of those press availabilities were in response to crises on the trail, including one to clean up comments Romney made about the protests in Libya and Cairo and another to address leaked video footage from a fundraiser in May.

Throughout that same time period, he has had just six impromptu campaign stops where he could mingle with voters. The last one was all the way back on Sept. 10. One was limited because of rain. Two were meetings to thank local first responders. Romney went to church on two Sundays. He saw his grandson play soccer one day and did a bit of boat riding on another. He held private meetings and debate preps on several days.

Taken as a whole, the scheduling tells the story of a campaign either unable to wean itself of fundraising events or a candidate still uncomfortable with unstaged moments.

"It certainly is an unorthodox way in which to seek the presidency to say the least," said Craig Shirley, a Republican author and consultant and a fairly regular Romney critic, said of Romney's limited availability. "At this point in the campaign public relations has far more impact on voters opinions of candidates than the paid advertisement."

Ryan has helped pick up some of the slack. The Wisconsin Republican has put in 17 separate campaign stops since the Republican convention ended. A Ryan spokesman declined to share information on fundraisers the congressman attended during that period.

What's driving Romney's schedule, advisers said, is a need for cash. Simply put, the campaign has been placed in a massive bind by Obama's fundraising prowess. Whereas the president, having discarded public financing in 2008 and once again in 2012, can do a combination of high-profile fundraisers and grassroots donor appeals to help replenish his coffers, Romney is playing with more limited tools.

The governor raised just $9.4 million in donations of less than $200 each in August, according to Politico. To fill the void, he has had to rub elbows with big donors, which has, in turn, infringed on the type of campaign that his advisers would otherwise like to run. Of the 11 fundraisers he's done since the convention, several were in electorally insignificant states like Utah, Texas, New York and California.

One top conservative activist sympathized with Romney's predicament, noting that it made an "odd," roundabout case for a stronger public financing system for elections. But he still wondered why Romney couldn't send surrogates to fundraise in his place.

The campaign finance numbers released by the Obama campaign on Thursday night provided that activist with an answer. The president's team spent $83.7 million in August, but raised $84.8 million. The Obama campaign left the month with $88.8 million in cash on hand -- $38.4 million more than Romney's $50.4 million. Perhaps most importantly, the Obama campaign said their funds came from 1.2 million individual donors.

And so, with less than seven weeks to go, Romney finds himself on the losing end of a political version of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars, in which a proverbial arms race has left his campaign stretched thin.

The Republican National Committee is there to pick up the slack, with $76.5 million cash on hand at the end of August, compared with the Democratic National Comittee's scant $7.1 million. But there are limits on the committee's ability to coordinate ads with the Romney campaign. Even if the RNC could do so freely, and spend unlimitedly, not everyone is convinced that the current strategy will work.

"If there was ever a time to panic, now is the time," said Shirley. "Only by getting on offense and staying relentlessly on offense can Romney get back into the race."

Romney appeared this week to be mindful of his challenges. His most senior advisers have said in past months that he performs best with his back against the wall.

In appearances over the last two days, he showed some notable fire on the stump, machine-gunning applause lines in waves that roused his audiences.

At a rally in Sarasota on Thursday afternoon, he lingered afterward, despite oppressive heat, shaking hands for almost 15 minutes.

Romney adviser Kevin Madden said Romney’s “resolve has hardened” and that he “is determined to work as hard as ever to reach every voter and make his case for a new direction for the country.”

"Everyone in his campaign is feeding off of the governor's resolve: from the campaign manager to the volunteers making calls and knocking on doors out in states,” Madden said.

And Romney showed some ease as well, born of experience, when a woman at a fundraiser in Sarasota earlier in the day yelled out, "We love you Mitt!"

"Thanks!" he yelled back, in a rare display of comfort. "I love you too."

In an effort to reduce Obama's relatability edge, Romney also tailored his message to counter the impression that his policies are not intended to help the common man. That image has suffered after videotaped remarks surfaced of Romney at a May fundraiser talking disparagingly about roughly half the country who he said he could never persuade to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The unearthing of those comments came on the back of a series of similarly negative developments for the Republican, all culminating with Obama pulling ahead in national and swing state polls.

Romney’s senior strategist Stuart Stevens has insisted that the national daily tracking polls by Gallup and Rasmussen Reports are the reliable measurements in a presidential race. Those surveys have the race at a dead heat.

But even if the race is, indeed, tied, Romney is approaching it now like a boxer trailing in the final round. Depending on one's perspective, the new urgency resembled a campaign in its last desperate throes, or a candidate who is picking up the pace at the season's most critical juncture.

One Republican close to the campaign, who could not speak frankly about the race without doing so anonymously, said there was no mistaking what was going on.

Romney’s newfound vigor, he said, “signals a campaign scared into doing what campaigns are supposed to do.”

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