In the hours after Mitt Romney waved to well-wishers from the stage at the University of Denver after last night’s debate with President Obama, his campaign released a new television ad featuring the candidate staring directly at the camera while standing in a factory, and, while soft music played in the background, describing how he would “create 12 million jobs when President Obama couldn’t.”
He made a surprise stop at the Colorado Conservative Political Action Conference, and despite some cringe-inducing moments for conservatives at the debate—as when, for example, he gave a full-throated defense of his universal health insurance initiative in Massachusetts, or spoke favorably of Wall Street—he received a standing ovation, telling the Republicans present, “We have two very different courses for America—trickle-down government or prosperity through freedom.”
The candidate otherwise kept a mostly low-profile, with no major interviews or televised rallies, but across the country, in battleground states, local lawmakers and supporters held press conferences reiterating the themes that Romney hit the night before—jobs, small businesses. At headquarters, the campaign had to process what they claimed were online donations that arrived every second last night. And at a conference call with major donors in the morning, “people were fucking pumped,” said one Republican fundraiser. “How could you not be after the last week? Nobody thinks this election is over now.”
Indeed. Conversations with Republicans inside and outside the Romney campaign showed that at last the “game-changer” that they have been counting on for the past five months may finally have arrived, and the strategy—if it can be called that—of lying in wait through the summer and early fall may start to pay dividends.
From the time the general election started in earnest last spring, Republicans have looked for three moments when Romney would begin to close the gap with Obama. There was the pick of Paul Ryan, which turned out not to move the needle much. There was the Republican convention, which did (or didn’t do) the same. And then there was last night’s debate.
Now, though Republicans are saying that those previous moments simply helped set up last night; that the Ryan pick gave Romney cover with Republicans, allowing him to make a play for the center at the debate, and that the convention was just the first step in filling out the picture of who Romney is to the vast majority of voters, a picture that got filled in further last night.
“The Democrats have been able to portray Mitt as a robber-baron, aloof, rich guy with Cayman Island money who hates poor people,” said one GOP strategist working with the campaign. “They can’t do that anymore. Mitt has credibility now with voters about exactly what he will do on day one.”
Romney’s pediatrician-like tone of voice, and his surprisingly relaxed demeanor allowed the campaign to show people just tuning in that the former Massachusetts governor is not the “vulture capitalist” they may have heard about. A CBS snap poll taken just after the debate showed that 63 percent say Romney cares about their needs, up from 30 percent before the debate.
Republicans gleefully pointed out that 36 million people watched Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech. The viewership last night? Closer to 60 million.
“I think this is a monumental sea change in the election,” said Greg Strimple, an adviser to John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “You felt the failure of Barack Obama to explain his economic plan. If I am Mitt Romney I am going to continue to make that attack.”
There are, needless to say, many, many hurdles to overcome. For starters, most polling research shows that the effect of even the best debate performance is limited. The map is looking increasingly unforgiving for Romney, especially if Ohio continues to look like it is out of reach. Democrats remain better organized on the ground, and early voting has given them an advantage that cushions anything that may happen between now and November.
Republicans said they did not expect there to be major changes going forward in their on-the-ground strategy. The hope instead is that success would breed success, and that more volunteers would mean that they would be able to increase a get-out-the-vote drive that had already surpassed McCain’s effort in 2008.
Instead, the election, they hoped, had a new frame. No longer Daddy Warbucks versus Franklin Roosevelt, it is now New Ideas for the Economy vs. Old Ideas. It’s the guy with the five-point plan to create jobs, the guy who worked with Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature, the one who, as he said last night “will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families.”
Strategists say there were three kinds of voters they are trying to peel away from the undecided column or from the Obama camp—suburban, married women; working-class voters who have been surprisingly Democratic-leaning in Midwestern states like Ohio and Pennsylvania; and white “business-oriented” professionals who care about deficits and the growth of government.
And Romney, strategists say, may not have won anyone over last night. But at least he got them to pay attention.
“His campaign needs to start reflecting the Romney we saw last night,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster. “They have been a little cautious and tactical, and it’s time to be a little more courageous.”