JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.
It's been a battering ram of late for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Just three weeks ago, the former Massachusetts governor was center stage in Tampa at the Republican National Convention, rallying his party and making his case for the presidency. But then, a series of self-inflicted wounds. Here's Romney 10 days ago.
MITT ROMNEY: The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions.
LYDEN: Romney was criticized even by fellow Republicans for his decision to weigh in too early on the attacks and protests in Egypt and Libya. And then there's that troublesome number, the 47 percent, which will undoubtedly haunt this GOP candidate for years to come. Mitt Romney was caught on camera criticizing 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes. He also spoke disparagingly of Obama supporters, characterizing them as victims dependent upon government.
The latest polls show President Obama with a five, seven, sometimes eight-point lead in some battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia. So the question we've been hearing all week is, can Mitt Romney survive the consecutive errors of the past few weeks, or has the train left the station?
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LYDEN: That's our cover story today: campaign missteps, fumbles, gaffes, if you will. We'll take a look at sinking moments in presidential campaign and see who, if anyone, was able to survive. But first to NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's been covering the Romney campaign for us. Ari, good to see you.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Jacki.
LYDEN: So yesterday, late in the day, Mitt Romney released his tax returns for 2011, as we know, along with health records for both him and his veep choice, Representative Paul Ryan. So how does this change things? What do we know now?
SHAPIRO: Well, we know that, in fact, he did pay roughly 13 percent for the last 20 years in addition to the detailed records for 2011. He released sort of top line numbers going back several years, and he had pledged that he did not pay less than 13 percent at any point. That was true. He also, at some point, earlier in the race said he paid all of the taxes he owed and no more, but, in fact, he didn't declare all of his charitable giving because if he had, then he would've paid a much lower tax rate. So in order to keep the statement true that he paid 13 percent, he didn't declare all of his charitable income.
LYDEN: So how has this changed things? Do you think it was a strategic move?
SHAPIRO: Well, you know that the Romney campaign is in a tough spot when they're trying to change the subject back to the issue of his tax returns. You know, this was something the Democrats have been harping on for a really long time. And it's possible that just after the end of a bad week, the Romney campaign figured let's get these out on a Friday afternoon.
And, of course, when I say a bad week, I'm referring to this 47 percent video that just dominated the news during a time that the Romney campaign was already sort of trying to come back from a slight deficit relative to Obama and trying to set the reset button in a way.
LYDEN: Let's talk about 10 days. Ten days can be an eon. That is the time we have until the first debate, 45 days until the election. So where's the Romney camp going to concentrate its efforts over this next period of time?
SHAPIRO: Well, certainly, they want to make a great impression in the first debate on October 3rd. But more broadly, I think they're having to shift their strategy because from the beginning of this campaign, they believed that the Obama economy would reassert itself, people would be unhappy with their economic status, they would vote down President Obama and turn to the alternative, Mitt Romney.
But these last couple weeks have brought a lot of evidence that that may not be enough. And so the Romney campaign is doing a lot more public events, a lot more campaign events. And they say that they're going offer sort of a more specific agenda that hopefully will bring them back up in the polls since week after week after week, they just have not been able to close this gap until now.
LYDEN: NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. He's been covering the Romney campaign. Ari, thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
LYDEN: All in all, a rough week for the Romney campaign.
WALTER SHAPIRO: OK. First of all, we only remember the bad weeks of losing campaigns. Victory is like amnesia, you forget any bad moment.
LYDEN: That's Walter Shapiro. He covers politics for Yahoo! News, and he's been reporting on presidential campaigns for decades. I asked him about some other moments in presidential campaign history that were also not elegant. He pointed all the way back to 1948, when the Republican Party nominated Thomas Dewey.
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THOMAS DEWEY: In all humility, I accept the nomination.
SHAPIRO: Who Clare Boothe Luce described as looking like the bridegroom on a wedding cake...
SHAPIRO: ...a stiff candidate slightly reminiscent of a certain other Republican who's running for president, was doing a whistle-stop tour through Illinois, and he was in a place called Beaucoup, Illinois, and because the train had pulled forward to take on water, it started backing up slowly towards the crowd. Dewey said, what a lunatic for an engineer. I should have that man shot.
SHAPIRO: While this may not have been the most prudent safety act by the part of the engineer, saying I should have that man shot and calling a working man a lunatic is not exactly a proven way to get blue-collar votes. It was all over the wire copy the next day, even in a non-Twitter age.
LYDEN: Could we compare any of this to, say, John Kerry's windsurfing in 2004?
SHAPIRO: Well, John Kerry's windsurfing came during the summer of 2004. And what was memorable is it led into a absolutely dead-on Bush campaign ad.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: In which direction would John Kerry lead? Kerry voted for the Iraq War, opposed it, supported it...
SHAPIRO: That showed Kerry going back and forth, you know, combining this with I was for it before, I was against it...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He voted for education reform and now opposes it.
SHAPIRO: But the fact is, it was the ad that made windsurfing memorable, not the event itself.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.
SHAPIRO: The problem with Romney this week is all the Romney events stand on their own without attack ads.
LYDEN: What else could we rule out here?
SHAPIRO: Well, first of all, you cannot avoid Michael Dukakis driving around in an Abrams tank.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed.
SHAPIRO: With a helmet on him, looking totally goofy, violating the Calvin Coolidge first law of politics, never put on a hat when you're running for major office.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And now he wants to be our commander in chief. American can't afford that risk.
SHAPIRO: There is just something wonderfully uplifting about the (unintelligible) fall. It may not be fair, but it's there.
LYDEN: Walter Shapiro covers politics for Yahoo! News. Thank you very much for coming in and being here.
SHAPIRO: Thank you, Jacki.
LYDEN: The fact is, even with historic sinkholes, some have still stepped over them and made it to the White House. And Ed Rogers says that Romney may still have his day. Rogers is a longtime Republican strategist and the co-host of "The Washington Post's" The Insiders blog.
ED ROGERS: Romney has a lot of work to do, and a lot of it is directed at the candidate. He's got to be sharper. He's got to perform better. He's got to appreciate that he is the centerpiece of the campaign. His job is to be the focal point on the stage. He has to be very sure-footed. He has to be repetitive. He has to be scripted. He has to be on message and be mistake-free. He's the underdog. Any challenger would be the underdog. And the underdog has to run a near-perfect campaign and get some breaks.
LYDEN: What about the debates, Ed Rogers? The first one's coming up in less than two weeks now, and it seems that people are counting on a strong performance there from Mitt Romney, certainly been rehearsing a great deal. What does he need to do?
ROGERS: A lot of the debates and their success or failure from a candidate's point of view is based on the expectations leading up to the debate. And the worst of all worlds would be for Romney to suddenly have high expectations that he must deliver a knockout, or he must somehow eclipse the president. That's unlikely to happen. The president is sure-footed. He's an able debater. The president knows what he believes and he can say it by heart. He won't struggle much during the debates. He certainly won't give Romney anything.
And the whole premise of the election should be, from Romney's point of view, the Republican point of view, a referendum on President Obama's performance mostly on the economy. And when people decide they don't want more of the same from President Obama, they'll want to know if the alternative clears the bar. And that's all Romney's got to do during the debates.
LYDEN: Who are the Romney Republicans? Who warms up to him?
ROGERS: Well, you've asked a good question. I think part of Romney's challenge on camera is Romney is perhaps a little authentically shy, and he's a little humble. I've seen him in person during these introductions when people gush about him. He becomes a little red in the face and embarrassed, and I think that suggests an authenticity that's admirable in one regard, but on television, perhaps it's a little chilling.
That said, Romney hasn't been around long enough and didn't have the kind of career prior to running for president that gives him much of an emotional foothold in the party. Being the governor of Massachusetts is not a flattering position to be in nationwide for Republicans. There isn't a Romney wing to the party. Romney's always had a low-grade fever with the conservative core of the party. And so that problem's going to be managed, not solved.
LYDEN: Well, we've got about 40-some odd days. Give me the advice, please, that you would give your candidate.
ROGERS: Get on message. Be sharp and direct. Tell people how Obama has failed, what you would do different. Say it over and over and over. Have your vice presidential candidate say the same thing. Don't make mistakes. Don't ad lib. Stay out of unstructured environment. When you do news interviews, do them in a very professional presidential, if you will, setting. Be calm. Be direct. Know what you want to say in advance. Don't wing it. And hope for a break.
But first, you got to not make any mistakes yourself and run that near-perfect campaign and hope that the other side gives you one. And they will. Everybody makes mistakes. These things come and go in cycles or waves. And as I said at the beginning, Romney's had his time in the dunking booth for the last couple of weeks. Well, Obama's going to have his before it's all over with.
And so when that happens - Lee Atwater used to say in politics, you know, you never kick a man when he's up. And so when your opponent's struggling, it's time for you to step on the gas.
LYDEN: You really do still believe that Mitt Romney could take the White House?
ROGERS: Oh, absolutely. This race is a long way from over. He's not in bad shape at all. He's well-poised. This is Romney's race to win. He can win it.
LYDEN: Republican strategist Ed Rogers of "The Washington Post's" The Insider blog. And by November 7th, we'll know which side of history Mitt Romney will fall on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.