Mitt Romney’s sharp-edged, fast-moving campaign for president has proven adept at the high political arts of attacking, heckling, and hand-to-hand Twitter combat.
But while Romney has proved to his vanquished Republican foes and to a Democratic president that he can throw a punch, a question remains: Can he take one? The campaign that sent hecklers to drown out Obama aide David Axelrod in a half hour of jeers and taunts in Boston a few weeks ago fled a Pennsylvania WaWa rather than encounter 150 protesters led by Governor Ed Rendell, producing a raft of local headlines on his “dodge.” The strategy: punch-and-duck, a pattern of scathing attacks followed by swift retreats to avoid opposition pressure.
They attack on everything,” said Chris Maiorana, who was on the receiving end as an aide to Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign. “Some [other] campaigns try to respond and operationally this is all that they do. They lose momentum and can't keep up.”
Indeed, for a feisty campaigner, Romney is notably averse to actual confrontation.
In January, he opted out of an in-person confrontation with Newt Gingrich at a South Carolina ham house, when the two campaigns scheduled simultaneous events at the same location. Romney arrived 45 minutes early and left before Gingrich arrived.
It’s a pattern that was set by more than a decade of Romney campaigns, ones where the candidate often chose the immediate attack over a long-term plan. Romney, for instance, declined to release his tax returns in 1994 and 2002 when he ran for Senator and Governor respectively, despite calling on his opponents to do just that. Now Romney has released two years of returns — fewer than the three years he offered to release in 1994 if Kennedy released his.
Romney hasn’t allowed logical consistency to stand in the way of more recent attacks. In the 1994 race against Sen. Ted Kennedy, Romney used the liberal icon’s trust fund as a battering ram, calling it “an age-old ruse.” When Democrats question his investments, Romney now claims he has no responsibility for those in blind trusts — though they don’t meet federal requirements for such financial vehicles.
During the Republican primary, Romney demanded that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich return payments from Freddie Mac. He ignored Gingrich’s counter that he was an investor in the government-backed enterprise.
And Romney’s first television ad took President Barack Obama almost teasingly out of context, but called it “fair.” He has complained repeatedly since then of being taken out of context by the Obama campaign, on comments including, “I like to fire people,” and remarks earlier this month that there are enough firefighters, teachers, and police officers.
While these give-and-takes are standard fare for political — and especially presidential — campaigns, the Romney team has relished in its ability to wiggle its way out of tough spots under the cover of the economy.
Indeed Romney’s campaign has repeatedly refused to engage on nearly every incoming attack, calling them distractions from the election’s core issue — creating jobs and economic growth.
The political logic: Time spent on defense is time not hurting the opposition. Another Republican operative praised the campaign for its discipline in taking short-term bad press to avoid long-term problems.
“His waffling on immigration after the president’s announcement indicates they’re convinced this will blow over,” the operative said. “They don’t want to get too far ahead of the party on this.”
But Democrats hope voters will see a pattern. Chris Harris, the spokesman for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, slammed Romney for a host of double standards.
"On everything from his hair to his hypocrisy, Mitt Romney is a caricature of a politician,” he said. “He chomps at the bit to throw bombs at his opponents yet cowers in the corner when he's confronted with his own tactics and his own record. Being the most extreme candidate in a generation, he will to anything he can to escape being held accountable."
A spokesman for Romney didn’t respond directly to questions about his punch-and-duck approach.
"With 23.2 million Americans out of work or underemployed, creating jobs for those folks is the absolute number one priority of Gov. Romney. Until we get this economy going in the right direction, Gov. Romney is going to keep talking about that,” said the spokesman, Rick Gorka.
Illustrating the campaign’s strategy, Gorka spun this weekend’s WaWa incident as a victory for the campaign, outsmarting the pro-Obama protesters.
“We had a top-level surrogate at the WaWa," Gorka said. "Gov. Rendell has been a terrific surrogate for the Romney campaign, talking about the president’s experience and his misguided attacks on Gov. Romney’s record in the private sector.”