Blasts from the Past Wound Mitt Romney in Battle to Define Him

Mitt Romney is a two-time loser this week, hobbled by Democratic attacks and friendly fire from his own side.

This might not amount to much, except we’re at a crucial phase in the calendar where Romney’s opponents are going all-out to define him before he can define himself.

And comments like this don’t help: “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”

Romney was referring to the aborted effort by billionaire Joe Ricketts to spend a fortune on television ads to resurrect Jeremiah Wright as an issue against Barack Obama. I happen to think Obama’s inflammatory pastor was a legitimate campaign issue in 2008, but what political genius thought that harping on the reverend would turn the tide in 2012?

The net effect was to force Romney to distance himself from what looked like wild-eyed allies who wanted to inject racial overtones and black liberation theology into the campaign. Hours after the New York Times broke the story and it was exploding online, Romney said he would “repudiate the effort”—the kind of strong language he refused to use when other Super PACs were carpet-bombing his Republican rivals during the primaries. And Ricketts, the Chicago Cubs owner, whose spokesman had told the Times he was indeed considering the $10-million blitz against Wright, sent word that he rejects such an approach. The source who gave the document to the Times succeeded in blowing up the proposal, dirtying up Romney in the process.

That, of course, came days after the Obama campaign launched a different blast from the past, reviving Bain Capital as an issue with a web ad that received millions of dollars in free exposure from the media. (The campaign paid to air it briefly in five states.) By focusing on a Kansas City steel plant that went bankrupt after a Bain takeover, the Obama camp was able to paint Romney as a heartless vulture capitalist who made millions while people lost their jobs. (Yes, Romney had left Bain by the time of the 2001 bankruptcy, but attack ads often omit such key details.)

The Bain-bashing is hardly new; Ted Kennedy employed that weapon against Romney in 1994, as did folks like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry earlier this year. What’s striking is that Romney hasn’t come up with a very effective response, other than to say that job losses are regrettable and some of the companies acquired by Bain generated jobs—before pivoting back to today’s anemic economy.

I asked Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, in a video interview on Thursday whether the Obama campaign was succeeding in painting a negative image of his candidate.

“He’s doing a very good job of defining himself,” Gillespie said. “He’s defining himself as someone who understands what needs to be done to foster economic growth in our economy.”

But that’s the thing: Romney is running as a fix-it businessman, but most voters don’t have a gut feeling about who he is. Gillespie says that was because voters mostly saw him in a suit behind a debate podium where he had 90 seconds to answer a question. Now that he’s going out and meeting voters, “the imagery has changed where people see him, the settings have changed where people see him. It’s a little more natural.”

Yet Romney is not a natural glad-hander, and often seems to stumble into moments of rich-guy awkwardness. That’s why the overplayed Washington Post story on that bullying incident back in high school hurt him more than it might have damaged a better-known or more relaxed candidate.

The summer is going to be a crucial period for Romney to give voters a better sense of who he is, before his opponents, and overzealous allies, do it for him.