DENVER -– Some of the most salient criticisms of Mitt Romney's campaign over the last month have included the Republican presidential candidate's failure to lay out a bigger, bolder, more specific vision for his candidacy.
“Romney does not have to prove Obama is doing a bad job on the economy. Voters already believe that. They want a door out of the room," Republican consultant Alex Castellanos said recently.
Romney made up ground in Wednesday's debate with his strong performance. But conservatives issued earnest pleas all summer for him to do and say more to open that door Castellanos spoke of, and in September, those cries grew even louder. Perhaps nothing captured this more than Peggy Noonan's blog post on the topic, calling for "an intervention" with the Romney campaign, but Josh Krausharr with National Journal and Kim Strassel with the Wall Street Journal wrote incisive columns exploring the same theme.
Conservatives mocked President Barack Obama for saying he didn't tell a good enough story to the public during his first term. But there's a strong argument to be made that the president gained the upper hand in the campaign over the past few months by doing exactly what he fussed about not doing previously: crafting a narrative.
There's more than policy details to this. In fact, Obama's campaign strategy has not been particularly heavy on details. He has been most successful in telling a story about how he is on the side of the regular folks, and Romney is out to "stick it" to them, as the president put it on Thursday morning at a rally in Denver.
And while the term "narrative" is badly overused, and while older conservatives in particular may roll their eyes when the word comes up, anyone who pays attention to culture and communication these days knows that nothing connects with the average American like stories. And while the visual age of television may have amplified that, stories have pretty much always been the most powerful vehicle for persuasion.
Romney is ultimately responsible for the effectiveness of his communication, or lack thereof, both in terms of strategy and execution.
But the driving force for much of the past year behind Romney's narrative -– to the degree that there was one -– has been strategist Stuart Stevens. Stevens, a Republican ad man for much of the past two decades, has dabbled in strategy on past presidential campaigns (Dole in 1996, Bush in 2000, and Bush again in 2004), and has been the senior strategist on several high-profile statewide races. But the Romney campaign was his first job on a presidential campaign where the candidate looked to him as the keeper of the flame when it came to message and vision.
And for much of the past year, whenever I or any reporter would ask Stevens whether Romney should have a more proactive vision, or a bigger one, he would point to a few speeches that Romney made, or he would point out that voters are going to judge Obama on his record, and vote accordingly. The economy, Stevens would reply, is so bad that many voters will have to vote against him.
It was obvious in September that this had not worked. Stevens was the focus of a very tough story in Politico on Sept. 9, the day before video of Romney talking about the 47 percent hit the news cycle. Perhaps no one benefitted more than Obama from that video of Romney than Stevens himself, as the glare of the media focus turned entirely away from him and toward his candidate's remarks at a closed press fundraiser.
And so even though Romney had one of the best nights of his candidacy in Denver on Wednesday, I walked up to Stevens in the spin room afterwards and asked for his latest thoughts about this ongoing critique of the campaign, and implicitly, of him.
Stevens started by citing the speeches he often does.
"I think that when you look at the history of this, a year ago he was out there laying out specific, what he was going to do with the military budget at the Citadel. A year ago he was laying out what became the basis really of the Ryan-Wyden budget proposal," Stevens said.
He gave a nod to the calls for more policy detail, but overlooked the vision element.
"I think the desire for more policy is something that is very understandable, but he's given a lot more policy than the president has in this debate," Stevens said.
I pressed him a bit, moving away from simple policy prescriptions, and asked about the story or narrative that the campaign has told voters.
"President Obama is spending a billion dollars," Stevens said, likely overstating the president's ad campaign by a good amount. "And that's a challenge to be able to break through that. We spent $135 million getting a primary done, and he got it for free. We've been vastly outspent in these states."
Stevens then changed the subject.
"So it's very gratifying to see President Obama come out from behind his billion-dollar campaign, most of it negative -- by far the most negative campaign that's ever been run in American history -- and have to stand on stage and answer questions and defend his record," Stevens said. "It's very, very gratifying."
It was typical Stevens spin. But afterward, I thought back to a comment Stevens had made that was not so on-message, when I first walked up to the small gaggle of reporters around him. Another reporter asked him who was in the debate audience, and he let slip a remark that revealed some anxiety about whether early voting might have given Obama a slight edge.
"Some people have started to vote, and probably that's one of the problems with early voting, is that a lot of people get to see debates and wish they'd voted another way," Stevens said.
"Are you nervous about early voting?" the reporter asked him.
He quickly recovered.
"No! Not at all," Stevens said. "I imagine that we'll win the early voting in these states."