After months of missteps, muddled messaging and middling poll numbers, Republican nominee Mitt Romney is moving to overhaul the campaign strategy he has stubbornly clung to since launching his current White House run more than 18 months ago.
The reboot unveiled by Romney aides on Monday aims to rescue a campaign that has so far failed to capitalize on voter discontent over the economy and disenchantment with President Barack Obama. It comes as polls show Mr. Obama pulling even with Mr. Romney in evaluations of which one of them would do a better job fixing the economy.
Instead of trying to make the election a referendum solely on Mr. Obama's economic performance, Mr. Romney's new tack involves framing the race as a vote on the "status quo versus change." With only 49 days to go, officials promised Mr. Romney would begin to offer more specifics about what he would do differently in the White House.
The new emphasis was announced after a Sunday report in Politico, the online Beltway newspaper, detailed chaos and infighting within the Romney campaign. And it follows renewed criticism of the former Massachusetts governor by conservative pundits exasperated at his failure to gain traction against Mr. Obama in such a weak economic environment.
The Politico story would have been damaging enough were it not for a video, posted by Mother Jones magazine late Monday, that shows Mr. Romney telling donors that Obama supporters are "dependent on government." The statement recalls, in reverse, Mr. Obama's 2008 comment that white, working-class voters "cling to their guns and religion."
The story highlighted tensions between the Romney campaign and the Republican base. Right-wing opinion makers have been disdainful of Mr. Romney's top strategist, Stuart Stevens. An extreme-sports athlete and onetime film major, Mr. Stevens, 59, is described as a non-ideological veteran of dozens of Republican campaigns that have followed the same strategy: Do no harm. That usually means offering as few policy details as possible.
"In the la-la land where adviser Stuart Stevens presides, Mr. Romney wins by never saying a single thing, ever, that might rock a single boat, ever," Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel wrote last week.
The criticism might not matter if Mr. Romney was leading in the polls. But the GOP nominee has been unable to turn a weak economy to his political advantage. Worse still, Mr. Romney has lost his edge over Mr. Obama on questions of economic competence.
Mr. Romney's business experience had been his primary calling card as he sought to underscore Mr. Obama's failure to make a significant dent in the unemployment rate. Instead, the Obama campaign has turned Mr. Romney's past running private equity firm Bain Capital to its advantage, persuading voters that the GOP nominee favours the rich.
After a gruelling primary season in which Mr. Romney veered to the right to overcome challenges by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, Mr. Stevens had, as planned, been positioning Mr. Romney in the middle for the general election campaign.
Mr. Stevens trashed two earlier drafts of Mr. Romney's convention speech, Politico reported, before he assembled the hastily written version that Mr. Romney delivered in Tampa. It was directed at disaffected Obama voters and made little reference to the issues that energize the Republican base, leaving many on the right dissatisfied.
The speech also made no mention of the war in Afghanistan or the sacrifice of U.S. troops serving there, leading conservative critics to resume the public attacks on Mr. Romney that they had suspended after he chose Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate last month.
The selection of Mr. Ryan, who made his reputation in Washington as an uncompromising budget hawk, amounted to Christmas in August for the Republican right. It was also seen as a sign that Mr. Romney had spurned the advice of Mr. Stevens. But the right's delight was short-lived, and Mr. Stevens's pre-eminence was re-established, as the Romney campaign forced Mr. Ryan to disavow some of his positions and Mr. Romney pledged to preserve parts of Mr. Obama's health-care law.
After playing down the Politico report, campaign officials on Monday said Mr. Romney would clear up any ambiguity over where he stands by moving to provide details of his policies. Mr. Stevens had resisted providing policy specifics, fearing it would take voters' focus off Mr. Obama's record. That is what happened when Mr. Ryan was added to the ticket. His plan to overhaul Medicare shifted the debate from the economy.
But on Monday, Romney adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters on a conference call: "We are not rolling out new policy so much as making sure that people understand that when we say we can do these things, here's how we are going to get them done and these are the specific…What we found is that people want to hear a little more of that."