WASHINGTON - September swoons are nothing new in presidential politics. Go back to almost any competitive election, and you’ll find one of the two candidates hitting turbulence—and pointed second-guessing—at this time of the year.
That’s the good news for Mitt Romney as he struggles with poll numbers that show him trailing President Obama in some key states, growing unease among Republicans about their nominee and his team and reports of disarray within his campaign operation. He’s not the first to face this situation.
The real test is how he responds. The history of campaigning suggests that, at moments like these, much more depends on the candidate’s performance than that of his campaign team. It is a leadership test in real time. What he says and does on the campaign trail in the coming days, and, far more important, how he conducts himself in the first presidential debate should answer that question.
The latest heartburn for the Romney team came Sunday night, when Politico reported on the chaotic process of writing the candidate’s acceptance speech for the Republican convention and aired criticism — none of it on the record — of chief strategist Stuart Stevens. To most voters, this is inside baseball. But it was the kind of story that often appears when things are at their worst and most stressful inside a campaign.
The Politico story hit at the end of a week in which Romney was on the defensive over his response to the angry anti-American demonstrations in Egypt and the assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed four Americans. Adding to that, last week polls showed a clear convention bounce for Obama, though it had begun to dissipate some by week’s end.
Veterans of past campaigns know what the Romney team is feeling. Mark McKinnon, who was President George W. Bush’s chief media strategist, said the Bush campaign went through the same thing in 2000. "We called it Black September," he said. "Everything went to ‘pieces’. Everybody was saying we should be fired. It’s eerily similar."
Four years ago, Obama’s campaign was under fire in the weeks after the two political conventions ended. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, his campaign given a booster shot by the selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, overtook Obama in the polls.
Democrats were pounding on the Obama team, so much so that campaign manager David Plouffe dismissed as "hand-wringing and bedwetting" the complaints coming from fellow Democrats. Obama was concerned enough about what was happening that he called a meeting of his senior advisers on a Sunday night and told them step up their game.
The next day, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, triggering the economic collapse and sealing McCain’s fate. Before the end of the campaign, McCain’s operation was a house divided, bitterly airing its differences in public even before the polls had closed on Election Day.
This year, it’s unlikely that Romney can count on some unexpected event like the economic collapse of 2008 to deliver the White House. But should he even need that kind of help? He already has what many Republicans regard as a golden opportunity to defeat an incumbent president. With the economy still in trouble and now the Middle East awash in protests, Republicans wonder why Romney isn’t in a more secure position with seven weeks left in the campaign.
Tad Devine remembers similar periods of outside criticism and internal duress in two campaigns in which he played senior roles: Al Gore’s 2000 election bid and John F. Kerry’s 2004 race. He sees only one path for Romney. "He’s the only guy who can save his campaign right now," Devine said. "He can have different people in different decision-making capacities. But he’s the only guy who can make this work."
This isn’t the first time Romney’s campaign has come under criticism. There were quiet calls for staff changes during the primaries and later complaints about the team’s operations from notable business leaders such as News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric.
Romney, the experienced businessman and manager, has put together a campaign of disparate personalities. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades is as buttoned-down as Stevens is mercurial and free-spirited and a lightning rod for criticism. Romney seems to have bonded with both, along with loyalists from his days at Bain Capital, his days as governor and his 2008 campaign.
It’s doubtful Romney would consider pushing out some of his people now. Tweaking perhaps, but little more. The core team of advisers, which has remained virtually the same from the start, helped Romney win a tough fight for the nomination of a party whose base resisted him from the beginning. Infighting in campaigns is the norm, not the exception. Romney’s team has no choice but to fight through the strategic disputes and personality clashes.
There is another reason staff changes aren’t likely. The turmoil wouldn’t be worth it. Romney would lose a week or more to the story at a time when every day is critical. Some Republicans loyal to Romney have concluded that Obama’s team has run a better campaign, but they still say that, given economic conditions, Obama is vulnerable and Romney can win.
Obama outspent Romney on television ads during the conventions, a decision by the GOP nominee’s team that is being second-guessed by outsiders. Romney has the money to spend freely now. But as one strategist noted, drawing back voters who may have slipped away during the summer will be harder now.
Romney advisers note that the Gallup tracking poll that last week showed the president with a six-point lead now shows the rivals separated by three points. That’s better than things looked a week ago, but Obama’s three-point margin is still significant, given how stable the race was for so many months. And Obama’s approval rating in the Gallup track has held at 50 percent since the Democratic convention.
That’s why so much depends on Romney. In the estimation of allies and opponents, Romney still hasn’t found either his voice as a candidate or a message bold or compelling enough to win over persuadable voters. To these strategists, Romney hasn’t risen to the challenge of defining his presidency. In Devine’s words, Romney needs real substance, not "fluffy substance," in his message.
Romney has an opportunity to define real substance as he tours the country during the next two weeks. But the most opportune moment will come on Oct. 3, when he and Obama meet in Denver for the first of their three presidential debates. That first face-to-face contest, McKinnon said, is "the best and maybe last chance" for Romney to turn the campaign decisively in his direction.
One GOP strategist close to the campaign, who declined to be identified in order to offer candid advice, said this is a time in the election cycle when voters begin to take a last good look at the candidates and that the first debate must be the moment for Romney to rise.
If he doesn’t do well there, the strategist concluded, "I am not sure folks will pay as much attention to later ones."
Other candidates have used the debates to change the race, even if temporarily. Amid doubts and criticism, can Romney do the same?