Risky Business

Mitt Romney’s Unruly Surrogates

The Romney campaign’s public embrace of Trump has left many scratching their heads. By Lloyd Grove.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Back during the Republican nomination fight, when Rick Santorum was giving Mitt Romney a run for his piles of money, the meagerly funded former Pennsylvania senator mostly steered clear of campaign surrogates.

“We oftentimes avoided doing too much with surrogates,” explains Santorum strategist John Brabender, “just because we didn’t have the infrastructure to do cleanup. What happens with surrogates is that they’re oftentimes not prepared if they venture outside their area of expertise and they sometimes don’t stick with the campaign message if they didn’t get a lot of training. You have to make sure that they get training, that they’re monitored, and then you then you have to be ready to do cleanup quickly if they get into trouble.”

The Romney campaign’s recent problems with professed backers such as Rudy Giuliani (who went on CNN this past Sunday to explain why his own job-creation record is “far superior” to that of the GOP nominee-designate) and especially Donald Trump (who has hijacked Romney’s economic message with a wild descent into birtherism) illustrates the prudence of Santorum’s surrogate-skirting.

Romney’s public embrace of Trump—who hosted a $3 million Las Vegas fundraiser for the candidate on Tuesday, the night he clinched the nomination, and is planning another fundraiser with Romney June 28 in New York—has provoked much consternation in the media-political complex. The cleanup challenges are elephantine. Why would a serious contender for the presidency associate himself with a publicity hound who promotes the long-discredited conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus is constitutionally ineligible to occupy the White House?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Brabender says. “I look at Trump’s role and I do scratch my head a little bit—and certainly others are scratching their heads. I would question the advantage of doing it. But the Romney campaign has a lot of smart people in it, and maybe they’re sitting on some information that I don’t have.”

A Republican strategist who asked not to be identified theorizes that Trump’s celebrity drawing-power and ability to raise money outweigh the negative media attention. “I’m guessing that Boston made a calculation that for $3 million, it’s worth it,” says the strategist. “They’ll take the two days of bad stories in exchange for the money.”

Of course, the bad stories are likely to last longer than a couple of days. Romney has only mildly disavowed Trump’s toxic crusade—a thinly veiled appeal to some of the less attractive elements in the Republican base—and seemed to wink at it this week by releasing his own birth certificate and in remarks at a Las Vegas rally that a president should be required to have had three years of private-sector business experience “in addition to the age of the president and the citizenship of the president and the birthplace of the president being set by the Constitution.”

Republican operative John Weaver, the campaign manager for former Romney rival and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the race after running third in the New Hampshire Primary, says he, too, is mystified by Trump’s prominence as a surrogate.

“It’s just odd,” Weaver says. “Maybe they figure he can attract enough crackpots out there to make it worthwhile.” Weaver adds that the downside of Trump’s involvement is negligible for the moment. “If we were in October and Donald Trump and Romney were doing events together, I would want to lock up the people who made that decision and send them to Bellevue.”

How long can Romney continue flirting with Trump and avoid the consequences?

“I think May 31st is the cutoff,” Weaver says.

The Romney campaign has yet to ask Jon Huntsman for his surrogate services. Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China, a fact that hurt his standing among Republican activists, positioned himself as the moderate in the race. His relationship with Romney, a fellow Mormon and longtime acquaintance, can be charitably described as frosty.

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“As of now, my dad is not a surrogate,” says his daughter and spokeswoman, Abby Huntsman. “He’s said that if he’s able to help he’s happy to help wherever he can. He’s willing to do whatever he can to help the party or the country. He hasn’t been reached out to. That might change once they decide they really need independents.”

For now, the Romney campaign is trying to enforce message discipline on an unruly collection of egomaniacs. The potential for damaging gaffes (i.e. inadvertent truth-telling) is compounded when the folks who are going on television to support your candidacy—as with Trump, Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, John McCain and a host of others—are former detractors and rivals who, in the not-too-distant past, made no effort to conceal their disdain for you.

During the Republican primaries in January and February, Gingrich repeatedly attacked the business record of Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, and called Romney a “liar.” McCain, who dutifully endorsed Romney this cycle, having beat him for the nomination in 2008, seemed back then to viscerally despise the former Massachusetts governor and regularly attacked him as “untrustworthy,” a “phony” and “a serial flip-flopper.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who these days makes positive noises about Romney on his Fox News program, memorably quipped that the longtime leveraged buyout artist “looks like the guy who fired you.” And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is still nursing Romney-inflicted bruises from the Republican debates, famously accused him of practicing “vulture capitalism.”

And it was only last year that Trump—today Romney’s highest-profile surrogate, robo-caller and fundraiser—dismissed the future Republican standard-bearer as “a small-business guy” who would “buy companies, he’d close companies, he’d get rid of jobs”—a close approximation of President Obama’s campaign talking points. Of course, that was when the reality television star/real estate mogul was toying with a White House run himself.

As with Romney's eventual running mate, their positive impact on the outcome is arguably negligible. “I don’t think it matters,” says a prominent Romney loyalist who spoke on condition that his name not be used. “This process happens every four or eight years. Somebody wins and everybody else loses. And they either get a case of sour grapes or they get on the train. Some of them get on because they hope to run for president four years down the road.”

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a onetime rival who is perhaps Romney’s most reliable surrogate, always available and on message, “is an example of the good soldier—both because he’s a nice guy and because he’s doing it for the right reasons,” says the Romney loyalist. “It’s a chance for him to get help paying off his campaign debt and also to stay relevant as a part of the process.”

Likewise, Santorum—who finally endorsed Romney a few weeks ago in a late-night email that was notable for its lack of enthusiasm—is trying to be a team player. Brabender says his candidate this week made a two-minute video, initially scripted by the Romney campaign and then ad-libbed by the TelePrompTer-averse Santorum, stressing the importance of Republican delegates presenting a unified front in late August at the party’s convention in Tampa.

It goes without saying that Santorum, who just turned 54, is doing everything he can to preserve his status as Romney’s runner-up. Should Obama win reelection—an outcome Santorum insists he doesn’t want—he’ll be, if recent history is any guide, the Republican surrogate with the best shot in 2016.