Mitt Romney’s urgent assignment now is to learn the lessons of a Republican primary season where missteps cost time and money while reinforcing doubts about his presidential candidacy.
It’s a must, even his allies say, given President Barack Obama’s well-oiled and election-tested machine.
At first glance during the Republican primaries, Romney’s team appeared disciplined compared with his rivals’. He also kept one eye on Obama the whole time.
Yet Romney gave his GOP opponents openings with verbal gaffes that highlighted his vulnerabilities. He let states such as South Carolina and Colorado slip away, unexpected losses that extended the campaign for the nomination and prevented Romney from focusing Obama in earnest until this month, when chief rival Rick Santorum dropped out.
Since then, Romney aides have mapped out a general election strategy that they will try to execute with more precision than they did their primary playbook.
“It’s a completely different game in the general election. You have to define a set of states that you have to have, and win them,” said Charlie Black, a GOP presidential campaign strategist. “It’s a one-day sale.”
To succeed against Obama, Republicans say, Romney will have to be nimble in accumulating the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Allies say he must anticipate an Obama rise in toss-up states and GOP-leaning states Democrats may try to compete in, and work early to head off such surges.
Romney failed to do that in at least two instances during the primary.
The former Massachusetts governor flew with a head of steam into South Carolina after a New Hampshire victory, and his team all but expected him to cruise to victory in the first-in-the-South primary. But he ended up spending 10 days squaring off against a suddenly ascendant Newt Gingrich, who ultimately won the state.
Romney then turned to Florida, where he beat back a Gingrich challenge.
But while Romney was doing that, Santorum had skipped ahead to Colorado, where voters embraced the former Pennsylvania senator as he seized on the unfolding debate over the Obama administration’s ruling on Catholic hospitals and contraception.
Romney had won Colorado four years earlier, during his first run for the White House, and his team expected success again. But by the time Romney turned his attention to Colorado, dropping a token sum on television ads in the campaign’s closing days, the state was slipping away.
“A tactical mistake they made was they did try to win Colorado, and failed,” Black said. “They got outhustled.”
It was Santorum’s victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri that established him as Romney’s chief rival and set the course for two more months of the nomination fight.
So far in the general election, supporters say Romney has shown he’s adept at countering Obama in pivotal states.
Romney pre-empted the president this past week in North Carolina and Ohio, which Obama won in 2008 and are competitive this year. Romney used Obama’s own pledges from the 2008 campaign against him in both states.
But even if Romney’s campaign successfully limits tactical mistakes, it’s an open question whether the candidate himself can avoid the verbal gaffes that have given Republicans and Democrats fodder to attack. His missteps fueled the notion that Romney is nothing more than a wealthy businessman who does not relate to the pain of everyday Americans in a fragile economy.
GOP strategists say Romney must curb his tendency for such awkward remarks, which will be amplified in the general election.
In February, for instance, Romney was trying to explain his efforts to focus on middle-class voters when he said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Later that month, Romney said in Michigan, a state with nearly 9 percent unemployment, that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” A few days later, attending the Daytona 500 in Florida, he said, “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
The most recent gaffe came from a staffer: Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom suggested that Romney could reset his strategy after nailing down the GOP nomination, likening the transition to erasing the image on an Etch A Sketch.
Still, for all those comments, Romney’s campaign has shown an ability to return the focus to Obama, which Republicans say will be critical in this campaign.