NORTH CHARLESTON, SC — Just release the damn returns already. Just say you’re rich already. Just stop debating already. This is some of the advice Republicans I talked to Friday offered Mitt Romney when asked to reflect on the tough week he’s had.
Romney held his last event before primary day at the convention center here, just a stone’s throw away from the site of the debate in which he faltered so badly Thursday night.
It was a fitting place to talk about the tailspin Romney’s campaign been in for the last couple days. And two of the South Carolina old-hands were keen to talk. Their advice? Flaunt it, baby.
Stop Acting So Embarrassed!
Robert Call is the District 3 County Councilman for Berkeley County, just to the north of Charleston. He’s run and won for office five times (counting primaries) — and lost before too. He’s for Romney, but Newt Gingrich is his second choice, so whatever happens Saturday he’ll probably be happy.
He said the cake’s pretty much baked in South Carolina.
“I think by this point, people have made up their minds,” Call said. But he agreed with the man standing next to him — former North Charleston Mayor Ken McClure — that if Romney wants to get back in the game, he needs to start acting more like The Donald.
“He needs to tell everybody he made a ton of money and he’s damn proud of it,” McClure said.
“It’s the American way,” Call agreed.
McClure said Romney is too bashful. “You know he always fumbles around [his wealth],” he said. “I think he’s a little embarrassed about it in front of a group of people.”
Release The Returns!
The DC operatives I reached out to had different advice, saying Romney needs to make some fundamental changes if he wants to right the ship.
First up: the change tactics theory. Whatever the thinking is behind how Romney is playing the tax returns issue, scrap it now, said an unaligned Republican strategist who wished to remain anonymous to avoid upsetting friends in the Romney camp.
“Everybody understands the desire to avoid a drip, drip, drip of information that gives opponents ample opportunity to take shots at him over his wealth, Bain ties, offshore accounts, charitable donations, whatever might be in there that opponents on both sides might attack,” the strategist said in an email. “But as it is, he’s having to spend a fair bit of time on the issue, and the questions — which, by the way, he’s answering quite badly in my view — are not likely to stop.”
The only way to get past this is to rip off the band-aid, the strategist said.
“He should set a date to release the returns, release them, and be transparent,” read the email. “People already have concerns about his character because of his flip-flopping, and the Bain and Cayman Islands stories have cemented in people’s minds that he’s a rich guy who probably engaged in some business practices that are likely to feel unsavory to some voters in the current economy. There’s very little he can do about those problems, but he can avoid adding to them.”
Get Off The Debate Stage!
So that’s the change tactics theory. Next is the change Romney strategy. Matt Mackowiak is a Republican strategist and columnist. We spoke by phone and he said basically that Romney needs to stop giving Gingrich what he wants.
“If you’re Romney, why do you keep debating?” he said. “The press does play into the issue of ‘can he handle tough questions, can he take the heat, etc’ so there’s a downside.”
Mackowiak said Romney should just pack up, head to Florida and get to work running a national campaign. Gingrich hasn’t shown the ability to match Romney on that score, so staying off the debate stage would deny Gingrich his number one national organizing tool.
But the dynamics of the race between the two men will still be there. Romney needs to lighten up if he wants to capture some real momentum, Mackowiak said.
“It just comes down to Newt has overconfidence and Romney has overcautiousness. And those two differences are both their strengths and their weaknesses,” he said. “Romney makes great speeches but he doesn’t excite the crowd. For Newt, his overconfidence allows him to answer a question about his ex-wife [the way he did at the debate.] On the other hand he gets into rhetorical flourishes sometimes that go to far, so — I don’t know, this thing is up for grabs.”
Romney’s campaign has been characterized by staying calm in the face of short-term surges, whether it’s Perry or Cain or Newt, and they seem to still be counting on their usual playbook to carry them through this latest rough patch. After laying off Newt for weeks, they’ve abruptly been sending surrogates on the warpath, and hope that shining a spotlight on Gingrich’s endless vulnerabilities will kill his momentum quickly. But the GOPers I spoke with don’t seem to share the campaign’s apparent confidence that the usual tactics will work this time. You may soon start hearing the above three points with increasing frequency and vehemence.