The minute a reporter brings out a tape recorder, campaign operatives get nervous, especially when their candidate is having a bad week. When National Review Online contacted several Romney sources on Wednesday, the vast majority of staffers and confidants declined to talk on the record. Many advisers, however, did talk “on background,” which means they were candid (to a point), and shared the campaign’s thinking. Broadly speaking, the campaign is optimistic, as well as frustrated. They feel that they’re competitive, and that the pundits, both in the mainstream press and on the right, are overly harsh. Here is a synopsis of those conversations.
This is the team. Outside of the campaign, there has been a lot of grumbling about Stuart Stevens, Romney’s strategist. It’s true that Stevens has critics within the campaign, and there are internal rivalries between various camps. Some politicos in Romney World simply don’t like his style, which is reportedly intense and numbers-driven but not buttoned-down. Still, few people in the campaign are closer to Romney. “The people who are complaining don’t understand his role — or they want his role,” says one Romney consultant. Old friends, such as Bob White, and longtime advisers, such as Eric Fehrnstrom, are also close, but Stevens has the governor’s ear, and at the highest levels of the campaign, there have not been discussions of an autumn shake-up. The addition of Ed Gillespie to the team in April will probably remain the biggest hire.
It’s cordial. Previous Republican campaigns have been full of tales of infighting, but in the Romney camp, most of the critiques are whispered to Politico, and even the whispers are rare. The Boston headquarters is a cordial place. Many of the advisers have been working together for at least five years, going back to Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Are there disagreements? Sure there are,” says a second adviser. “But this isn’t a campaign of big personalities.” Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager, is a low-key leader who despises “process” stories and spends much of his time working with Romney’s political team, as well as with his friends at the Republican National Committee. He never goes on television. Stevens avoids TV, too, and though he is not Rhoades’s best friend, they have a professional rapport. Older hands (Gillespie, White, and others) quietly keep the peace whenever tensions arise.
Location, location, location. According to Romney advisers, the criticism of the campaign isn’t coming from state party chairs or tea-party activists but from the usual Beltway suspects, and from media commentators who are looking for drama. “It’s noise,” a third adviser says. In fact, Romney advisers see the candidate’s unpopularity in Washington as a plus, most of the time. Going into the cycle, they knew Romney’s business background and the campaign’s Boston headquarters would put them outside of Capitol Hill’s circle of lawmakers, Hill staffers, and veteran GOP consultants. Many members of Team Romney enjoy the distance from that crowd. But the distance has a price. “We’re not there for all of the dinners and the parties, which, I guess, matter to a lot of people in Washington,” the second adviser says. (Beltway types, for their part, dismiss that kind of talk as the complaint of a troubled campaign.)
They’re flush. One of the least-told stories of the summer was the campaign’s struggle with primary cash. Owing to federal law, Romney couldn’t spend his general-election dollars until after the convention. By August, the primary stash was getting low, and the campaign took out a $20 million bridge loan to carry it through the convention. They expect to quickly pay back the remainder of the loan. They also feel confident about their financial situation over the final stretch. Romney has had a few great months of general-election fundraising, and together with the Republican National Committee, the campaign has more than $100 million on hand. The real focus now seems to be on mapping out where to spend the money. They’re also keeping Romney busy with fundraisers so they don’t lose their financial competitiveness.
The Mother Jones videos are the new tax returns. Romney’s campaign sees the “47 percent” story as unhelpful and distracting, but not as a damaging, campaign-ending scandal. As a fourth adviser tells me: Romney got out in front, didn’t apologize, and is still in a dead heat in the polls. “He’s already moved on, and the campaign isn’t obsessing about this,” the adviser says. The adviser compares the videos to Romney’s tax returns, which dominated the Washington chatter but didn’t have a major impact on the campaign. That ultimately may be right, but Romney is now playing defense, telling a crowd on Wednesday that he is for the “100 percent.”
Portman knows how to prep. Romney advisers have been mostly mum about debate preparation, which has been held sporadically in rural Vermont over the past few weeks. But I keep hearing one takeaway from those who are close to the sessions: Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is an ace, and he has challenged Romney more than Romney expected, which has pleased the governor. Portman’s Obama impressions and his ability to get rather aggressive with the Republican nominee have enthused Romney. Sources say Romney absolutely hates being badgered, but Portman’s task has been to boost Romney’s confidence and thicken his skin.
Eastwood was . . . fine. Some Romney advisers couldn’t stand the empty-chair performance, and they are still irked that a couple of senior advisers (Stevens et al.) didn’t vet the speech. “People have stopped talking about it, since there isn’t lots of love for it,” the fourth adviser says. Some of Romney’s closest friends enjoyed it, or at the very least they were amused by the spectacle. No one really thinks it’s going to win or lose votes. If anything, Eastwood’s comparison of Obama to an unsuccessful hire who must be “let go” reinforced Romney’s theme of disappointment. Those who are nervous in Romney World think it was an unnecessary gamble; those who are confident about winning see it as a hiccup on the way to victory.
Of course, these are optimistic perspectives, from people inclined to be optimistic. Other top Republicans have a grimmer view. But this is the view from Boston.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.