Romney Aide Gaffe Shows Crack in Message Discipline Plans

Mitt Romney 2012
A Rick Santorum supporter with an Etch A Sketch in Metairie, Louisiana on March 23, 2012. Photograpnher: Steven Senne/AP Photo

The words “Etch A Sketch” had barely passed Mitt Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom’s lips when they began echoing through the political world through television talk shows, twitter, e-mail, and YouTube.

“Mitt Romney’s top adviser confirmed today that Romney has no core and will say anything to get elected,” said a March 21 e-mail sent to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign’s “” e-mail list.

Fehrnstrom’s suggestion in a CNN interview that campaign policy positions taken during the Republican presidential primary can be wiped away in a general election like a drawing on a child’s toy was striking because his team holds twice daily calls to script its public talking points and avoid such an unforced error.

“In this cycle with Twitter, Facebook and a 24-hour news cycle our goal is to arm every surrogate and grassroots activist with the key facts and messages that they need,” said Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee communications director, who helps coordinate his committee’s efforts. “We’re not trying to create parrots. We’re trying to create well-informed activists and surrogates.”

Old as Moses

Synchronizing messages between the candidate, campaign and outside allies isn’t new to politics. “Moses had 10 talking points he brought down from Sinai,” said Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton adviser and now a CNN commentator, who doesn’t participate in the Obama campaign message coordinating calls. “Trying to get folks to sing from the same hymnal is even older than hymnals themselves.”

Still, the velocity at which information circulates today can magnify a mistake, and both parties have installed systems for imposing rhetorical discipline and circulating scripted remarks to staff and outside allies who regularly appear on the talk-show circuit.

Twice a day, Romney’s aides conduct a conference call with surrogates and officials who have endorsed the former Massachusetts governor to discuss communication strategy, according to a person close to the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The campaign calls outside allies several times a week to suggest lines of attack. Last week that included highlighting rising gas prices, which they say is driving suburban voters away from Obama and raising doubts about the president’s leadership on the economy, the person said.

“We are constantly in communication with supporters and pundits alike,” said Andrea Saul, Romney’s spokeswoman, who declined to go into further detail.

‘Scary and Revealing’

Rick Santorum’s campaign staff holds a conference call with surrogates, including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, at least three times a week, according to Hogan Gidley, communications director for the former Pennsylvania senator’s presidential campaign.

Gidley said the campaign held two impromptu calls on March 22, the day after Fehrnstrom’s gaffe. “When a scary and revealing issue like Etch A Sketch comes to the forefront, we tend to jump on calls more than three times a week,” he said. The Santorum campaign employs a Washington-based “surrogate coordinator” who organizes the calls, Gidley said.

The prolonged primary fight gives Obama an edge in the message war, said Jennifer Donahue, a policy fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, because “you get to start the general election early while your competition is still snarling with primary opponents.”

RNC Counters Obama

While the primary continues, the RNC has been sending out a “pundit prep” cheat sheet every Friday to more than a thousand surrogates who are regular television talk show guests, press secretaries and state party leaders. It also holds a half-hour conference call with as many as 200 people on the first Tuesday of every month. The call is led by a Republican polling expert and Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush’s White House, said Kirsten Kukowski, an RNC spokeswoman.

The March 9 two-page “Pundit Prep” from the RNC listed five bullet points, including dismissing a 17-minute Obama campaign biography narrated by Tom Hanks and directed by Davis Guggenheim, an Oscar winner, as “Obamawood” and a page of economic statistics such as the national deficit in March compared with when Obama took office.

Ever since paper and the telephone were invented, “people have coordinated, and in politics coordination is even more important than many other endeavors,” said Fleischer. Once the nominee is chosen, his campaign will take over the coordination.

“This is where campaigns indeed do go through a transformation from a primary campaign to the general, and structurally speaking lots of things change,” he said.

Pundit Preparation

After months of coordinating with the Democratic National Committee, the Obama re-election campaign took over the pundit-preparation program last week. Every Wednesday between now and Nov. 6, the campaign will take Democratic television talk show regulars, most of whom are unaffiliated with the campaign, through their talking points, according to two people on the call.

Stephanie Cutter, the campaign’s deputy manager, and Ben LaBolt, the campaign spokesman, led the March 21 call, according to three people invited to the calls. LaBolt and Melanie Roussell, a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Talking Points

In their March 21 “talking points,” the campaign instructed its allies to tie House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal to Romney’s plan. The missive reads: “Key Point: The Ryan budget plan is the same as Mitt Romney’s: bad for the middle class.” The March 22 memo repeated the theme, saying: “Both Romney’s and Ryan’s budget plans turn Medicare into a voucher program, increase health care costs to seniors by thousands of dollars, and give massive tax cuts to the wealthiest.”

The calls appear to be working. On March 22, Karen Finney, an MSNBC analyst and former DNC communications chief, discussed the Ryan budget in a television appearance during which, she said, it “ends Medicare as we know it.”

On the same day, Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, said on CNN that when Romney was governor he supported fuel-efficiency standards and a gas tax. On the fourth page of the campaign’s March 22 talking points: “As governor, Romney increased a tax on gas by 400 percent.”

Cardona is invited on the Obama communications strategy phone calls, according to a person on the call. Cardona declined to comment. Finney said she’s also invited to the calls and receives the Obama campaign’s daily talking points. She said she uses them along with “a number of resources, including information” from the White House to prepare for her television appearances.

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