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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Romney Campaign Diversifies Lines of Attack


For most of the last year, Mitt Romney has stuck to one basic message: President Obama has botched the economy.

Top aides have long promised that nothing could divert the campaign from its mission to drive that message home. Early ads assailed the economic plight of the country, focusing on job losses during Mr. Obama's tenure, the unemployment rate and the nation's growing debt.

But in the last several weeks, Mr. Romney's campaign has been diverted - often of its own accord - to a host of other topics. The once singular message has become far more diverse.

Mr. Romney has not abandoned his economic argument entirely. His stump speeches still include a searing critique of the president's inability to turn the economy around. And yet, the television ads made his campaign and his allies no longer feature that argument as the central one - at least for now.

The move suggests a strategic shift by Mr. Romney's advisers to seize on other subjects - welfare, Medicare, religion - that might help fire up conservatives while also trying to appeal to wavering swing voters.

But in the meantime, the campaign risks losing the disciplined message that once appeared to be the hallmark of Mr. Romney's second run for the White House.

Here's a rundown of the messages from Mr. Romney's team during the past several weeks.

- NEGATIVITY Mr. Romney has made a concerted effort to accuse his rivals of conducting what the Republican candidate calls a hate-filled campaign. In a speech in Ohio this week, he told Mr. Obama to “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.”

That theme has been echoed by his new vice-presidential pick, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, as well as his allies at the Republican National Committee and independent groups. It has generated headlines on numerous days in the last two weeks.

Aides say it is a response to attacks by Mr. Obama and his allies, in particular an ad by Priorities USA Action that implied Mr. Romney was responsible for the death of a man's wife, and unsubstantiated comments from Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, about Mr. Romney's taxes.

Democrats call it whining, and insist the Republican has been just as negative. Either way, the argument threatens to drown out everything else.

- PAUL RYAN Announcing a vice-presidential pick was always going to shift the conversation. But Mr. Romney's decision to choose Mr. Ryan instead of one of his other potential running mates ensured a longer, more drawn-out period in which other messages would be drowned out.

And by announcing his pick early - two weeks before the start of the Republican convention - Mr. Romney provides plenty of time for attention to be diverted away from his basic themes.

Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney have started campaigning separately, but much of the media attention remains focused squarely on Mr. Ryan as reporters examine his background, his policy proposals and his initial foray onto the presidential stage.

- MEDICARE Knowing that Mr. Ryan's proposals on Medicare would be controversial, Mr. Romney's campaign has chosen to go on offense with an ad accusing the president of cutting $716 billion from the health care program for older people.

The new ad, called “Paid in,” defends the “Romney-Ryan plan” for Medicare, saying it protects benefits and strengthens it for “the next generation.”

The ad comes as Mr. Obama's campaign and other Democrats begin an all-out effort to highlight Mr. Ryan's plan to eventually turn Medicare into a voucher program in which senior citizens receive help to purchase private insurance.

Not discussed in the ad? Unemployment, jobs or the deficit.

- WELFARE The other big attack Mr. Romney's campaign has begun in recent weeks has been on the issue of we lfare. Seizing on a recent directive by Mr. Obama's administration, the Romney campaign claims the president has eliminated the work requirement from the federal welfare program.

Mr. Romney has made the charge repeatedly on the stump, grabbing headlines every time. And his campaign has aired ads on the issue, prompting angry denunciations from Mr. Obama's campaign and numerous independent fact checkers who noted, accurately, that Mr. Obama's administration did no such thing.

- FOREIGN POLICY The decision to take a weeklong trip to Europe was perhaps the first indication that Mr. Romney was willing to shift away from his basic economic message. Even if everything on the gone well at each stop, his campaign would have been off-message.

Mr. Romney's trip was consumed in part by gaffes in London and Israel that robbed the campaign of the news coverage it had hoped for. But when he returned, Mr. Romney began running a television ad highlighting his trip to Israe l, criticizing Mr. Obama for having not visited there as president.

He also released another television ad accusing Mr. Obama of “declaring war on religion” by requiring some religious institutions to pay for contraception coverage. The ad highlights Mr. Romney's visit to Poland during the trip abroad.

Neither of the ads talks about America's economic situation.

- ‘YOU DIDN'T BUILD THAT' Unlike the other subjects, Mr. Romney's decision to hammer the president on his “build it” comments does fit with the broader economic message. Mr. Romney's campaign argues that Mr. Obama's comments reflect a lack of understanding about small businesses and their impact on the economy.

But the ads are still a departure from the more direct approach that characterized Mr. Romney's campaign for much of the year. Instead, the ads showcase small business owners upset with Mr. Obama's comments.

Those ads, too, drew denunciations from Mr. Obama and his allie s, who said his words were taken out of context.

Follow Michael D. Shear on Twitter at @shearm.