Can Romney Win as the 'Etch A Sketch' Candidate? Maybe

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By Margaret Carlson

When Mitt Romney's campaign manager was asked on CNN whether the Republican primary campaign had pushed his candidate too far right, his response immediately attained Internet immortality, at least for this news cycle: "Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Eric Fehrnstrom said. "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all of over again."

The correct answer was a simple no, along with some blather about how voters will see Romney as the moderate alternative to Obama. It was probably not a good idea to evoke the image of a three-year-old shaking a toy so that he can draw a better stick figure. The mental picture is far too apt.

Instead, Fehrnstrom committed a Kinsley gaffe: He inadvertently spoke the truth. What's worse, he made it memorable. Many candidates have to move to the center for the general election, perhaps none more than Romney. But that movement is not given a name, especially not the name of a popular child's toy. Toy metaphors are to be used sparingly and constructively, like Legos (helpful for building a new tomorrow) or Superman (helpful for fighting evil). Sketch-a- Mitt was just too easy.

Fehrnstrom should be forgiven. A lack of sleep and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from finally winning the contest that wraps up the nomination (no matter the nomination-deniers in the press) lulled him into honesty. He blurted out the wet dream of every press secretary, usually buried in his deep unconscious, that any candidate can be made over into his ideal of the perfect candidate. Almost every campaign memoir has as its theme, "If only he'd listened to me."

Then again, Fehrnstrom could have been demonstrating the evil-genius strategic vision he's admired for (he helped Scott Brown win Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts). On the face of it, as one of the more prolific shape-shifters in politics, Romney is the worst person to be associated with an easily erasable image. At the same time, any attempts to describe him as "resolute" -- the word he chose when asked to come up with one word to describe himself in the last debate -- are bound to be difficult, to say the least.

Fehrnstrom must know it is too late for Romney to be seen as resolute, even if Romney doesn't. Fehrnstrom's only sin was in making his transformation of Romney 5.0 into Romney 6.0 too vivid.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Mar/21/2012 23:21 GMT