The Romney campaign has made three fundamental missteps that it must overcome if Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is to prevail over President Obama this November. For the first time since I declared the U.S. presidential race a Jump Ball four months ago, we are seeing a candidate gaining a slight edge in the polls.
Obama's current lead is by no means definitive. Even though the campaign is fewer than seven weeks away, in political terms, this is a couple of lifetimes. Time remains to correct course, but the Romney campaign must return to a path that fills its sails for the final leg of the race in order to cross the finish line first.
Here are Romney's three missteps:
1. Taking a Small-Field Focus to a Big Field Contest. There is a difference between the U.S. presidential race and nearly any other political contest. Even though races for governor occupy the front pages of local papers for an extended duration, national media does not constantly reinforce them. And even though presidential primary contest dominate headlines in both local and national press, they do so for only a transient time. Presidential races are a prolonged state-national-international echo chamber unlike anything Romney has experienced.
Successful campaign approaches to small-field (congressional and statewide contests) and big-field (presidential) contests are fundamentally different. The Romney campaign has been following the classic small-field game: Raise lots of money and save it to spend at the end of the campaign. This fails in a big field contest because with more attention, there is more time spent on what they call in literature or films "character development." Whether candidates would be fun to have a beer with is just as important as to where they stand on issues in presidential campaigns.
As I discussed in Job 1 for Romney: Tell Why He Cares, it was a mistake for Romney to wait until the convention to tell his life story in a way that connects to the everyday lives of average Americans. It was an unthinkable mistake for the Romney campaign to yield the airwaves to the Obama campaign during the conventions. Romney told his story in a compelling way at the convention, but it was not reinforced on the airwaves as the Obama campaign significantly outspent Romney on advertising during this period.
By not cementing his life story in the mind of voters, Romney left a vacancy that the Obama campaign is diligently working to fill by characterizing Romney as uncaring. One of my supporters told me, "If you get a reputation as an early riser, you can sleep to noon every day." Giving the Obama campaign the opportunity to define Romney's reputation as uncaring leaves him especially vulnerable to missteps -- including his recent comments about the 47 percent. If Republican senatorial candidates in key swing states feel compelled to start distancing themselves from Romney, the negative consequences of the early misstep will be multiplied.
2. Lack of Message Discipline. As I have also maintained for some time, Romney's path to victory demands message discipline. Despite the fact that conservatives want him to talk about a range of issues, the path to victory requires a narrow focus on issues where Romney has a credible edge -- most importantly jobs and the economy. Yet Romney has repeatedly gotten into trouble due to a lack of message discipline (consider his Libya and his 47 percent comments). Not only did each of these comments cause voters to question Romney's judgment, they also have distracted from Romney's core message: Essentially, that you and your kids are more likely to find rewarding work with Romney as your president.
3. Small Circle Instead of a Big Circle of Trust. Running for U.S. president requires the need to make sound judgment on issues with a range and complexity unmatched by any other job. This requires candidates to have a wide array of diverse experts to bring into a circle of trust. While the Republican National Convention did a good job of bringing forth people who related Romney's caring side in a compelling way, it also highlighted the fact that for much of his life, Romney has lived within a small circle of trusted colleagues -- fellow members of his LDS Church, partners at Bain Capital, and cabinet members while he was governor of Massachusetts.
Romney's early attack on Obama's handling of the Libyan Embassy shooting reflected campaign reflexes, not seasoned foreign policy instincts. Balancing the tension between the simultaneous conflicting needs for wide input and quick decisions is a challenge for every presidential candidate. It is one that Romney must quickly address as we head into debate season.
The good news for Romney is that his current campaign woes are largely from self-inflicted wounds. It remains in his hands to chart a path to victory.
Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).
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