Republican candidates jockeying to run against Democratic President Barack Obama, including frontrunners Mitt Romney and dark horse Tim Pawlenty, face significant communication hurdles, say public affairs pros.
Mitt Romney's challenge came to a head in a recent speech, in which he continued to support the healthcare plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts.
“Romney is a successful businessman,” says Christina Reynolds, MD of The Glover Park Group, “but the bulk of his time so far has been spent explaining something that used to be one of his accomplishments.”
“When you look at the headlines after that speech, it was all, ‘Mitt tries to defend and explain,' which is not a powerful position to be in,” she says. “When you start your communications from a defensive posture, it doesn't bode well for the rest of your campaign.”
Gail Gitcho, communications director for the Romney bid, could not be reached for comment. She is a 10-year veteran of Republican campaigns, including John McCain's run in 2008.
The challenge facing Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, is summed up in a May 19 Time Magazine profile, titled "Mr. Nice Guy."
“He can't play nice forever,” says Vincent Harris, founder and CEO of Harris Media. “Even in the South Carolina debate, Pawlenty wouldn't attack Mitt Romney because he wasn't next to him on stage. But at some point the knives need to come out. And when they do, how he delivers those contrast messages will be very interesting.”
Harris says Pawlenty also has to convince voters, particularly in swing states, that he's “exciting and energetic enough.”
Alex Conant, press secretary for Tim Pawlenty, says his campaign's biggest asset is Pawlenty's character and back story. His mother passed away when he was young; his father was a truck driver.
“Unlike some people in the field, he hasn't run for or held national office before, so he starts in a lower place in terms of name recognition and familiarity,” says Conant. “But we see that as an opportunity because people are looking for a fresh face.”
To help raise his profile, Conant says the campaign team has put social media at the forefront of the bid. “It is not a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but we are supplementing traditional campaigning with social media to engage supporters and voters,” he says.
For instance, they have leveraged Facebook to make announcements and hold town halls. Engage, a political media firm, is assisting with the digital strategy for the campaign.
“Social media is one space we have invested heavily in terms of recruiting talent,” Conant says.
Still, with the recent exits of Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, there are no clear favorites for the Republican presidential nomination. But both Harris and Reynolds agree Mitch Daniels has the experience to be a strong contender – if the Indiana governor decides to throw his hat into the ring.
“The challenge with Daniels is the same problem we saw with the Democratic field a few years back. In the absence of a really strong frontrunner, people look to another person and say, ‘Clearly they are the answer, they are everything we are looking for',” says Reynolds. “But once they start, it takes a bit of the shine off.”
Given Obama's sophistication with social media, all the Republican candidates face the added challenge of how to best use online interaction in their communication.
Barack Obama's website prominently uses Facebook Connect to ask people “Are you in?”
“The application is genius because it captures data and creates this snowball effect, because people see their friends who support Obama,” Harris says. “Obama is leading Republicans again online.”