Conservatives both lament and defend Romney campaign

9:06 AM, Jul 6, 2012   |    comments
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(CBS NEWS) -- Mitt Romney's campaign for president is coming under increasing pressure to change course - or clean house - from establishment Republicans who fear the Romney campaign is squandering a prime opportunity to win back the White House.

On Thursday, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page ripped the Romney campaign for its fumbling of the debate over whether the health care law signed by President Obama includes a tax.

"This latest mistake is of a piece with the campaign's insular staff and strategy that are slowly squandering an historic opportunity," the Journal wrote. "...Mr. Romney promised Republicans he was the best man to make the case against President Obama, whom they desperately want to defeat. So far Mr. Romney is letting them down."

Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the conservative National Review, told CBS News that the criticism and others like it is "reflective of real conservative unease about the Romney campaign strategy, and also about the campaign's at least perceived insularity."

Hours after the Journal broadside went live, influential Weekly Standard editor William Kristol posted a story in which he compared Romney to Democrats Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. Kristol suggested that, like those presidential nominees, Romney is on the way to losing "a winnable presidential election to a vulnerable incumbent."

"Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he's running?" Kristol wrote. Like the Journal, Kristol took Romney to task for having little message beyond claiming that President Obama has been a poor steward of the economy.

"The economy is of course important," he wrote, criticizing Romney for a lack of specific policy plans. "But voters want to hear what Romney is going to do about the economy." Talk radio host Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, argued on the air Thursday that Romney needs to "get off the jet ski," a reference to his vacation this week in New Hampshire.

The criticism came four days after media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns the conservative Fox News channel, tweeted that Romney should replace his campaign staff. "Met Romney last week," he wrote. "Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful."

The Romney campaign did not respond to a request for a response to the new criticisms. But in the wake of Murdoch's tweet, press secretary Andrea Saul said, "Gov. Romney respects Rupert Murdoch and also respects his team and has confidence in them." Late Thursday, the Washington Post reported that the Romney campaign will "fortify his communications and messaging team by adding seasoned operatives" in the wake of the criticisms but plans to keep the core campaign team in place.

Ponnuru said Romney would be wise to heed the criticism that emerged Thursday.

"Voters are perfectly aware that Obama inherited a bad economy, and they want to know what Romney would do differently that would help the economy, and so far they haven't really had much of that," Ponnuru said. "It's just general statements about how bad the economy is, how Obama has failed, and how Romney is a leader who has good ideas and all that...I think the country wants a little bit more than that."

National Review editor Rich Lowry agreed.

"Something like this was inevitable, but I think the thrust of the criticism is sound," he said.

Lowry argued that by being more specific about his policy plans, Romney would be less susceptible to attacks based on his history at Bain and would have an easier time achieving his goals if he does win the presidency.  

"There's a general sense on the right that a more substantive campaign would be better," said Lowry.

Not every Republican is finding fault with the Romney campaign. Republican strategist Charlie Black, a top adviser to Sen. John McCain during McCain's 2008 presidential run, said the conservative handwringing shouldn't come as a surprise.

"Every presidential campaign these same people, or people of their ilk, attack the campaign because it's not good enough," said Black, who is now an informal adviser to Romney. "Sometimes they might be right - this time they're wrong."

"They do it every four years," Black continued, noting that Romney is nearly even with Mr. Obama in polls. "I think I'm going to walk down to the Wall Street Journal and tell them I'm taking over their editorial page. Now I've never done it before, you understand, but I'm sure I know how to do it better than you do."

"I didn't say much when they were punching me around in 2008 when we were down 10, 12 points in the polls, but that is just not the case this time," he added.

In an email, Republican strategist Mary Matalin largely defended the Romney campaign from the critics.

"...these same pages (to which I am addicted and agree with 99.9%) lambasted Romney for his 59-Point economic plan for its specificity, now they lament his non-specificity," she wrote. "He has given any number of specific speeches and insights to not only his policies, but the philosophy whence they emanate."

"Could the campaign have threaded that needle better (as WSJ details)? Yes," Matalin continued. "Does it matter? Yes...but...not as much to swing voters as what the IMPACT of the tax/penalty/fine/incentive will be on their family budgets and on the national debt, which they are increasingly understanding as impeding growth and job creation."

Matalin argued that the Romney campaign has plenty of time to work out the kinks, writing that Americans "are not glued to political news this scorching July 4 holiday and will start paying attention after the Olympics when they will dip into the conventions, then in earnest after Labor Day."

"No campaign is 100%," she added. Where does she put the Romney campaign? A "solid 75%."

Dan Schnur, a former communications director for John McCain and the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, noted that "most of the critics who've been voicing their concerns over the last several days are people who are never particularly big fans of Romney in the past."

"That doesn't mean they're complaints don't have some validity, but they're coming from people who've never been that fond of the way he's approached politics," he said.

Schnur added, however, that the Romney campaign could benefit from bringing outsiders in. The current team - which Ponnuru said seems to be "very much of a closed shop" - is built around a tight-knit team of longtime Romney aides, including senior advisers Eric Fehrnstrom and Beth Myers.

"Every successful presidential campaign in modern history has expanded their team between the primary and the general election," he said. "That's not a criticism of the people who help the candidate achieve the nomination, it's just a recognition that the campaign is moving on to a different type of playing field."

"Romney's got a tremendously talented team of advisers, but like Reagan, Clinton and every other successful campaign in recent memory, they'd probably benefit from some fresh voices as well," he said.

"A successful campaign team is about balance," Schnur continued. "On the one hand, you want people who know the candidate almost as well as he knows himself. You want people who understand him and his motivations. But on the other hand, you also gotta find some people, some additional voices, who have some emotional distance."

He pointed to Mr. Obama to illustrate.

"Obama has very strong loyalists, like David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett," Schnur said. "He's also brought in people who have different types of perspective, like Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina. It doesn't devalue the former, it just augments them."

Black, the informal Romney adviser, said the Romney campaign has already evolved.

"They just went from 100 employees to 400 in the last ten months," he said. "...The addition of Ed Gillespie as a senior adviser is a major move. It's a totally different campaign."

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