04.20.12 8:45 AM ET
How Mitt Romney Beats the Press, Avoiding Most National Interviews
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Mitt Romney is hiding from the national media, exactly. Why, on Thursday morning he went on Fox & Friends, fielding such tough questions about his challenge to President Obama as: “You’re beating him with independents. How are you going to outdo him in that department?”
And Romney did sit down—with his wife, Ann, which seems to have been the point—for a chat this week with Diane Sawyer, which focused on Ann Romney’s role, a handful of issues, and why he once transported the family dog on the car roof.
But as he makes the pivot to general-election nominee, Romney remains a remote figure to most of those who are covering him. And some Republican campaign veterans say that makes political sense.
“Of course he should be wary of the media,” says Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman. “The media are increasingly adversarial. It’s always in the candidate’s interest to talk to the media on his terms and his timing. Why would he want to turn his agenda over to the press?”
Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign, also sees a risk of being knocked off message.
“If you field 75 questions a day, your chances of giving a bad answer are relatively high,” Schmidt told me. “If you give 74 good answers and slip up on one, guess which one will be on cable news and driven to the comedy shows?”
Instead, says Schmidt, he expects Romney to visit more venues like Jay Leno’s show, perhaps accepting an invitation from Saturday Night Live, “where he has an opportunity to connect with audiences or demographics where he’s weak.”
The Romney campaign says the candidate has been quite available in ways that don’t register on the national radar. Since March 30, spokeswoman Andrea Saul points out, Romney has done 21 interviews with local television stations. He has also done six cable interviews, five of which were with Fox News—two of them with Sean Hannity—and one with conservative CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow. Romney has also done 10 radio interviews with such conservative hosts as Hannity and Mike Huckabee.
During the primaries, when Newt Gingrich was snarling at John King and other debate moderators and Rick Santorum was accusing a New York Times reporter of peddling “bullshit,” Romney generally refrained from press bashing. He did grumble in a speech to newspaper editors that “in 2008, the coverage was about what I said in my speech. These days, it’s about what brand of jeans I am wearing and what I ate for lunch.”
But Romney took aim squarely at the Fourth Estate this week in an interview with Breitbart TV, founded by the late conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart. After complaining about a “vast left-wing conspiracy” aligned against him, Romney said that “many in the media are inclined to do the president’s bidding.” That undoubtedly plays well with the Republican base, but sniping at the press may do little to attract the independent voters he needs in November.
Romney may well be frustrated by the rolling coverage of his wealth, his car elevator, his stumbles, his religion and, yes, that incident with the Irish setter. But he pays a price for his strained relations with the journalists who follow him around the country.
Most view him as stiff and awkward, and as a Beltway outsider, the former Massachusetts governor has given them few glimpses of the person behind the political mask. A subtle resentment factor may develop when reporters feel they’re being stiffed month after month.
“Keeping the press corps at arm’s length doesn’t pay off in the end,” says Doug Hattaway, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “They drive the storylines that define the conversation in social media and entertainment. You need to be in that game as well. You can’t ignore it.”
The upside of forging relationships with beat reporters, says Hattaway, is that “when they know the candidate as a person, they’re likely to be a little less cynical or snarky.”
Of course, Romney doesn’t have much of a cheering section even on the right. National Review editor Rich Lowry, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, columnist George Will, Red State blogger Erick Erickson and others have all displayed varying degrees of skepticism or hostility toward him. And the Romney camp has made little effort to court the conservative cognoscenti, with top adviser Stuart Stevens insisting they have no interest in running “a green-room campaign.”
Every presidential candidate, including Barack Obama in 2008, has wrestled with how much to deal with the traveling press corps. This was a particular dilemma for McCain, since the Arizona senator spent endless hours during his cash-strapped 2000 run for president chatting up reporters on his Straight Talk Express. That approach abruptly ended once he clinched the 2008 nomination.
“Fundamentally, we weren’t going to be held to two sets of rules,” Schmidt says. “Obama gave very limited access to the press pool.”
The era of journalists sizing up candidates through background conversations is a casualty of today’s Twitter age, says Schmidt: “On the bus, the average age of reporters was 24, each with a handheld camera or cellphone looking to file the most politically damaging thing they could file that day.”
Fleischer says it is often a matter of not having a stray comment obscure your message. “If President Bush gave a speech and made news, we wanted that to stand on its own,” he says.
What’s more, “the press still has a hangover from the love affair in 2008, even though they’re not as in love with him as they used to be. It’s much easier to be Barack Obama than Mitt Romney when it comes to press coverage.”
But the inescapable fact is that Romney has a propensity for damaging slips of the tongue. The morning after the Florida primary, he stepped on his victory by telling CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Such gaffes have undoubtedly made his team more cautious about putting Romney in television studios.
“They’re in a tough position because more exposure doesn’t necessarily help Romney—the more you see him, the less you like him,” Hattaway says.
Romney, who has not appeared on any Sunday program other than Fox News Sunday, clearly recognizes the need to broaden his approach. In that Breitbart TV interview, he said that Fox is watched by “the true believers.”
But he has had testy moments even on Rupert Murdoch’s network, such as when he grew irritated with anchor Bret Baier for pressing him last fall on his changing positions on several issues.
By November Romney will have to demonstrate that he can hit major-league pitching in less friendly confines than Sean Hannity’s set. How often he does that will depend on what he views as the risks and benefits of facing the vast left-wing conspiracy.