Despite a series of political fumbles, Mitt Romney is "still very much in the game," according to political strategist Steve Schmidt. But, he says, it will take some work.
Schmidt served as John McCain's senior strategist in the 2008 election and helped George W. Bush get reelected in 2004. He spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about the Romney campaign's stresses.
"I don't think you can make a broad and sweeping statement about Mitt Romney on the basis of the last three weeks, where you've had a number of these self-inflicted political errors," he says." Just because they did not make an effective case, for example at the convention, does not inhibit them from beginning to make an effective case."
Not everyone is so optimistic. In The Wall Street Journal on Friday, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan expanded on previous comments:
"The Romney campaign has to get turned around. This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant 'rolling calamity.'"
Romney, for his part, shrugs off polls showing he's slipping. In a 60 Minutes interview to be broadcast Sunday, Scott Pelley of CBS News asks the candidate how he plans to turn things around with little more than six weeks to go until Election Day. Romney responds:
"Well, it doesn't need a turnaround. We've got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president to the United States."
Schmidt spoke with NPR before Romney's campaign released the candidate's 2011 tax return on Friday, just as the issue had been slipping out of the headlines. By then, there were already new challenges for the campaign to overcome.
There was the video leaked on Monday where Romney talks about the "47 percent" of Americans who would vote for President Obama, which drew negative reaction in swing states. Plus, there has been news of infighting among his campaign staff, including a Politico report last Sunday.
Schmidt says internal campaign strife can be demoralizing. "When you see people doing that, that's a sign of losing control," he says.
The goal for Romney's people, he notes, is to focus on what they have in common: their belief in Romney. "And that one big thing, that unifies the campaign staff, has to be able to overcome all the other differences to create functionality in the campaign."
It's too early to tell whether these challenges are a reflection on Romney's leadership, Schmidt says. "To a degree, a presidential campaign is the most elaborate character test that we could possibly design to see who has the mettle to be president.
"If they come back from this, it'll be viewed as a great achievement and it will show grittiness and determination," he says. Until the campaign is finished, "we can't write that chapter yet."
That means there's still time for the Romney campaign to make that effective case.
"They can't focus on opportunities lost. They've got to focus on the opportunities ahead. And the opportunities ahead are these debates," Schmidt says. "You can't overstate their importance."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For some insight into the stresses and strains of a presidential campaign at this point in the process, we turn to Steve Schmidt. He was John McCain's senior strategist in the 2008 election. And we spoke with Mr. Schmidt before Governor Romney released his tax returns. Mr. Schmidt, thanks so much for being with us.
STEVE SCHMIDT: Great to be with you. Thank you.
SIMON: First, how damaging has this week been for the Romney campaign, do you think?
SCHMIDT: There's two things going on. There is a narrative that's building around the Romney campaign and around the larger race that's very bad for the Romney campaign. But at the same time, even though Mitt Romney had this terrible stretch of a couple of weeks, he is still very much in the game.
SIMON: There are numerous reports of in-fighting among Romney campaign staff. Can you help us understand what it's like for a staff to read this stuff on websites and blogs and in the newspapers? Does it get in the way of running a campaign?
SCHMIDT: Oh, of course it does. Look, it's demoralizing. You know, I had the opportunity, I was, you know, on two presidential campaigns on senior levels. And on the Bush campaign, it was a campaign that we knew it was going to be a very close race. But that's a high-morale, unified, disciplined operation. And then, you know, I've been part of one where, you know, there was a lot of in-fighting. And it's something that you recognize intellectually, I think, that when you see people doing that, that's a sign of losing control. You know, people just have to figure it out and understand that they're making a case for the country, you know, and their belief that Mitt Romney is the right guy and one big thing that unifies the campaign staff has to be able to overcome all the other differences to create functionality in the campaign.
SIMON: Does he have the right campaign staff? Is he an effective leader of that campaign staff?
SCHMIDT: Well, to a degree, presidential campaign is the most elaborate character test that we could possibly design, you know, to see who has the mettle to be president. I mean, Mitt Romney right now, how he's doing as the heavy campaign organization, we'll know at the end of campaign. Because, you know, if they come back from this, it'll be viewed as a great achievement and it will show grittiness and determination. And I think you can't write that chapter yet.
SIMON: Mr. Schmidt, when you see polls this week that suggest that Mr. Romney is falling behind by a few points in key electoral states that were considered to be virtually tied up - I'm thinking of Ohio, Virginia and Florida - if polling like that persists, does the campaign then have to make a practical decision as to how much of their resources to concentrate there?
SCHMIDT: You know, pulling out of those states is not a viable strategic option. And the Romney campaign, for example, is much more highly capitalized than the McCain campaign was in 2008. They have a lot of money, and the battleground is small enough and the money plenty enough that they don't have to make strategic choices like that in the race. It's very difficult to put together 270 electoral votes, you know, without winning Florida and Ohio.
SIMON: I have heard Mr. Romney speak on a few occasions and speak effectively. And I wonder if you have any reflection on how he's been talking in recent weeks.
SCHMIDT: I don't think that you can make a broad and sweeping statement about Mitt Romney on the basis of last three weeks, where you've had a number of these self-inflicted political errors. Just because they did not make an effective case, for example, at the convention does not inhibit them from beginning to make an effective case. And there is an effective case to be made both for Mitt Romney and a critique that could be made of the president. And I think that he has every opportunity to make it with the time left. But, you know, they can't focus on opportunities lost. They got to focus on the opportunities ahead. And they opportunities ahead are these debates. And we know that, you know, the polling can move with what goes on in these debates. You can't overstate their importance.
SIMON: Mr. Schmidt, are you surprised that week-in and week-out the economy hasn't always been the central issue of the campaign the way people were suggesting it would?
SCHMIDT: You know, when Mitt Romney, you know, said earlier in the campaign, you know, that they were talking about the economy, that they were winning and, you know, when we're not we're losing. And, you know, there hasn't been a lot of economic talk in the campaign lately. And they obviously need to clear out of another bad week and then look for Mitt Romney to get his equilibrium and start making the argument.
SIMON: Steve Schmidt, Republican strategist who was senior campaign advisor to Senator John McCain in 2008. Mr. Schmidt, thanks so much.
SCHMIDT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.