WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For months, Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was a picture of discipline, charting a relatively steady course for the former Massachusetts governor through a bitterly contested primary season.
In recent weeks, however, Romney’s tight ship has not looked so tight.
Romney’s missteps on issues such as immigration and healthcare - and images of him on a jet ski during a vacation at his New Hampshire estate this week - have exasperated some supporters who are calling for a shake-up of his staff and worrying he could bungle Republicans’ chances of ousting Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
The concerns were summarized in an editorial late on Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal, which said Romney’s Boston-based staff was “slowly squandering an historic opportunity.”
“Mr. Obama is being hurt by an economic recovery that is weakening for the third time in three years,” said the Journal, whose editorial page is a barometer of the thinking of leading conservatives. “But Mr. Romney hasn’t been able to take advantage, and if anything he is losing ground.”
The anxiety over Romney’s campaign has been heightened this week by its conflicting messages over his position on a key part of the Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld Obama’s healthcare overhaul. But it was only the latest example of message problems from a campaign that even some Republicans say is being outmaneuvered by Obama’s team.
Last month, Romney struggled to articulate a detailed response to Obama’s executive order that stopped deportations of thousands of children of illegal immigrants.
The Republican - who trails Obama badly among Latino voters - still has not come up with an immigration plan that might cut into Obama’s lead among Hispanics without angering Romney’s conservative base.
Romney’s decision to take this week off at his lakeside home in New Hampshire - which led to the photographs of the multi-millionaire zipping around on a jet ski with his wife, Ann - prompted some fellow Republicans to say that Romney had blown a chance to strike a more patriotic theme around the nation’s July 4 Independence Day holiday on Wednesday.
Instead, some said, Romney fed a narrative being pushed by Obama’s campaign: that the wealthy Republican is out of touch with the concerns of most other Americans, particularly the middle-class voters both candidates covet.
“I don’t even think this is his fault,” conservative radio talk host Laura Ingraham said. “This is his advisers. This is not Romney, this is the advisers telling him: ‘Oh, it’s fine. Take a week.’ There’s no week to spare, we have a country to save.”
Of particular concern to conservatives was Romney’s policy dance this week over whether requiring Americans to buy health insurance under Obama’s healthcare plan should be considered a tax, as the Supreme Court ruled last week, or a penalty.
Although Republicans were disappointed when the high court upheld the healthcare law last week, they took some solace in the court majority’s declaration that the fee charged to those who refuse to buy health insurance was allowed under Congress’ taxing powers - making the fee a tax.
That allowed Republicans to campaign on the notion that the Obama plan’s “individual mandate” amounted to a tax increase.
But on Monday, Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said that Romney believed the Obama healthcare law carried a “penalty,” not a tax as the high court had ruled.
Fehrnstrom added that under a similar healthcare plan for Massachusetts that Romney backed as governor, the fee charged to those without coverage was considered a penalty, not a tax.
That put Romney squarely in opposition to the view held by Republican leaders of Congress and many Republican voters. Some Republicans said that by continuing to discuss the healthcare ruling, Romney’s team was reminding voters of his role in creating the Massachusetts plan - and diverting the campaign from its focus on jobs and the economy, which most Republicans see as Obama’s biggest weakness.
On Wednesday, Romney seemed to change course in an interview with CBS.
“The Supreme Court has the final word, and their final word is that Obamacare is a tax,” he said. “So it’s a tax. They decided it was constitutional. So it is a tax, and it’s constitutional.”
Some conservative critics of the campaign reacted with dismay.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his listeners it was a waste of time for Romney to debate whether the mandate was a penalty or tax.
“If this keeps going this way, we’re going to lose it all, folks,” he said.
On Thursday, Romney adviser John Sununu defended the candidate’s staff during an interview with CNN.
“I think it’s a good staff and I think they demonstrated that during the primaries” by pushing a consistent message, said Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush.
Going forward, Sununu said, the campaign must “recognize that we’re in a campaign mode where simple, tough, declarative sentences are required. This is not a campaign to be won on nuance, but to be won on making sharp distinctions with the failure of the Obama administration economically, the loss of jobs and the pain that Americans across the country are feeling.”
The Obama campaign has been pounding Romney on his tenure as a private equity executive at Bain Capital, accusing him of being involved in the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas. This strikes at the heart of Romney’s argument that his business experience makes him a natural for the White House at a time of economic distress.
The Romney camp’s defense against such attacks included a highly public yet failed effort to persuade The Washington Post to correct a news story on the issue, ensuring the Bain issue got even more coverage.
Such moves led some conservatives to call for a campaign staff shake-up even before this week’s flap over the healthcare law. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch led the appeals, and was quickly backed by a tweet from former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who referred to Obama’s staff in Chicago:
“Hope Mitt Romney is listening to Murdoch advice on campaign staff..playing in league with Chicago pols..No room for amateurs.”
On Thursday there did not appear to be any sign of changes in Romney’s staff. Republican strategists noted that every campaign had ups and downs, and that the race between Romney and Obama remained close in voter surveys.
“Publicly chastising the campaign is certainly not a way to be helpful,” strategist Dave Carney said.
An outside adviser to Romney’s team said that the campaign’s position on the healthcare law ”ended up in the right place, but they never should’ve had anybody on staff out there saying the wrong thing or setting the wrong policy.
“It can be taken as a little sign of disarray,” the adviser said, “but I think the big things are going pretty well.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney