Campaign vets to Romney: Change the subject from '47%' remarks - and fast

Campaign veterans and agency experts shared their thoughts with PRWeek on Tuesday about whether the Romney campaign can rebound from the leaked tape, as well as how the campaign has handled the controversy.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney faced a fresh controversy on Monday night after a video surfaced that shows him calling President Barack Obama's supporters “victims” who are “dependent upon government” and “pay no income tax.”

Romney, speaking at a private campaign fundraiser in Florida in the video, said 47% of people back Obama and “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them…believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.” He went on to say that his job “is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The former Massachusetts governor held a press conference Monday night where he acknowledged making the remarks but said they were “off the cuff.” The candidate was in the process of overhauling his campaign's messaging strategy less than two months before the election.

Campaign veterans and agency experts shared their thoughts with PRWeek on Tuesday about whether the Romney campaign can rebound from the leaked tape, as well as how the campaign has handled the controversy.

Maria Cardona, former senior adviser to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign and partner at the Dewey Square Group
Can Romney recover?

It is possible, sure. There are 48 days left, and a day is a lifetime in politics. What this video does is underscore all the negativity that has surrounded Romney as a candidate in terms of what he understands. He doesn't get what everyday middle class families are going through. These comments denigrate 47% of the population and, frankly, many of these voters are who Romney needs to win in November.

How has the Romney campaign handled it?
Not very well. Romney himself double downed on the comments and didn't apologize for maybe offending some people, which you think he would have done. He said it may not have been elegantly stated, but he stuck with the remarks, which emphasizes to voters that that what he said is still the case. He described them as victims, or to paraphrase, “government moochers,” essentially lazy and not hardworking. His advisers, I think, have done as good of a job as they can attempting to pivot to the economy. But because this video was Romney speaking, and the verification of the video was from Romney, the pivots his aides are trying have not worked.

David Fuscus, president and CEO at Xenophon Strategies and a former taskforce leader for President George HW Bush during the 1992 election
Can Romney recover?

Campaign gaffes are overstated in the media. They get an initial big rush of news coverage and then it's over. It's rare a single gaffe sinks a campaign. I do not think that Obama has won because of this. Did it hurt Romney's campaign? Absolutely.

How has the Romney campaign handled it?
His campaign is engaging in damage control, but, in the end, it's about how quickly they can get beyond this. How they perform that job will be a gauge of how they handled the crisis. If this stays in several news cycles, it could really have a detrimental impact.

Lance Morgan, chief communications strategist at Powell Tate and a one-time spokesperson for former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York –
Can Romney recover?

You never say never in politics, but because this so perfectly fits into the anti-Romney narrative, it's going to be an uphill climb. He basically said half the population is made up of victims and are happy to play that role, and that's absurd. This was not a slip of the tongue; this was an ill-conceived thought, and that's far more serious. No presidential candidate can afford to denigrate half the population.

How has the Romney campaign handled it?
The fact of the matter is that there are some things that are beyond their ability to handle. You just have to move on and change the subject. The more he has tried to explain himself, the worse it has gotten. When you're in a hole, you need to stop digging. This was an assertion about moral behavior, and it's going to be hard to come up with a formulation that is going to succeed to make that go away, as opposed to if it were just a slip of the tongue.

Brian Jones, partner with the Black Rock Group and former communications director for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. He is also a former RNC communications director
Can Romney recover?

Absolutely. The fundamentals of the race remain unchanged, and nearly every poll shows the race as being statistically tied. The campaign needs to talk about Romney's plan to help the middle class and continue to illustrate how Obama's policies are hurting working families.

How has the Romney campaign handled it?
Romney addressed the issue [Monday] night and is doing another interview [Tuesday] afternoon. The core political point he was making is undeniable, whether you're a Republican or Democrat. Both candidates start with about 47% of the electorate and then it's a fight for those important swing voters.

Brendan Daly, EVP and national director of public affairs at Ogilvy Washington and one-time communications director for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Can Romney recover?

Yes, he can recover, but it's an uphill battle for him. The narrative for Romney went from bad to worse. Everything you always suspected about him is true -- he's a multimillionaire who has no concept about what middle-class Americans go through every day.

How has the Romney campaign handled it?
The campaign and Romney have handled it badly -- once again, he refuses to back down from an offensive comment he has made.

Neil Dhillon, MD and US director of public affairs at MSLGroup
Can Romney recover?
Normally, in presidential elections, there's an October surprise. But Romney has now shocked the middle class even further with these damaging statements, and then he doubled his damage with a muzzled press conference. However, with 49 days remaining before the elections, the stakes are higher now that he will have to deliver three grand slams in the three upcoming presidential debates and to deflect this current crisis. It's possible but unlikely.

How has the Romney campaign handled it?
From a communications perspective, the Romney camp was correct to call for a press conference on the leaked tapes. However, his advisers are obviously not providing him the correct message points and not rehearsing his speeches, evident at the Republican National Convention, as well. There has been recent campaign noise to switch out his top advisors, but Romney keeps declining. In my opinion, there's time to right his ship, but he needs to bring in top-flight crisis communicators immediately to help navigate him through the tough terrain expected over the next 49 days.

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