Romney's policy overshadowed by empty seats and Cadillacs

WASHINGTON — The Globe and Mail

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Detroit Economic Club during a campaign stop at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan February 24, 2012. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS/REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)

Is the mainstream U.S. media out to get Mitt Romney? Or does it just know a fumble when it sees one?

The nominal frontrunner for the Republican presidential gave perhaps the meatiest policy speech of his campaign on Friday, outlining major proposals to cut taxes and reform Medicare. But most media outlets barely focused on those ideas.

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Instead, what sent reporters aflutter during the event held at Ford Field, home to the Detroit Lions, were the optics of the speech. The 1,200 business types gathered on the turf to hear Mr. Romney looked like ants amid the 65,000 empty seats in the stands.

“Tonight, that speech is getting a lot of attention, and not for all the right reasons, for the Romney campaign,” NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams said at the opening of Friday’s broadcast.

Within minutes of the lunch hour speech, The New York Times posted a piece on its site with an unflattering headline: “At Romney speech, 1,200 people and 65,000 seats.” The piece was reprised for Saturday’s print edition under the headline “For Romney, a Message Lost in the Empty Seats.”

For most media outlets, the empty stands, along with Mr. Romney’s seemingly out of touch disclosure that his wife Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs” became the story.

For the Romney campaign, which had billed the speech as a major economic address meant to reset a campaign that appeared to have lost control of its carefully constructed narrative, such coverage was the last thing it needed on the eve of the critical Michigan primary. Mr. Romney must win Tuesday’s vote to get is campaign back on track.

Romney operatives spent the weekend, to no avail, pushing back against the idea that they had dropped the ball. From their point of view, the speech was a stunning success.

The event’s sponsor, the Detroit Economic Club, sold out its slated 700 tickets within 90 minutes and had to find a bigger venue to accommodate the 1,200 people who paid as much as $75 each to hear Mr. Romney speak.

The DEC wanted to hold the event in the Atrium at Ford Field. But, according to the Romney campaign, the Secret Service detail that follows Mr. Romney on the campaign trail nixed the idea of squeezing that many people into such close quarters.

For the Romney campaign, the aesthetics of stadium backdrop were no disaster, but rather visually pleasing. Except for the Cadillac comment, Mr. Romney gave a pitch-perfect speech before a sympathetic, if somewhat reserved, crowd.

That was a relief, considering the reception he might have gotten, given his infamous 2008 New York Times op-ed proposing to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” On Friday, he won over the crowd by insisting Detroit must become “the Motor City of the entire world” and vowing to make it happen, all while sticking to his free market values.

Mr. Romney’s plan to cut marginal income tax rates by 20 per cent – dropping the top federal bracket to 28 per cent from 35 per cent – was warmly applauded. And he earned nods of approval for suggesting that the Medicare eligibility age rise to 67 from 65.

Still, as NBC reporter Peter Alexander concluded, “stagecraft is often as important as what the candidate says.” And on that note, Mr. Romney lost the media before he opened his mouth.