Ryan Williams ate his tacos quietly, his blue eyes staring into space with the intensity of a man thinking about urgent business. Amid the afternoon crowd inside the Tortilla Coast restaurant on Capitol Hill last week, no one seemed to recognize Williams, who is almost 30, but looks young enough to be a congressional intern. Yet the man quietly eating his tacos was, in fact, thinking about the enormous challenge his team must accomplish in the next six months: Defeating the President of the United States.
Exactly where Williams fits on the organizational chart of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, I'm not sure. Most often called a "spokesman" for the former Massachusetts governor, Williams is still listed as a "regional press secretary" on some public charts, but was more recently described as "Romney's furiously efficient national press secretary." Whatever his title, he is a key player on Mitt's media team, a veteran operative who first started working for Romney a decade ago during the Republican's successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign. An alumnus of Boston College, Williams began his career as a teenage volunteer on the lowest rung of the political ladder, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps. More recently, he's been shadowing President Obama on the campaign trail, appearing at events to give reporters instant feedback on Romney's behalf. When Obama officially launched his re-election campaign with a Saturday rally in Columbus, Ohio, Williams was there to send out photos of empty seats in the upper deck of a 20,000-seat arena that was barely two-thirds full for the presidential appearance. Williams also fired off a quick response dismissing the speech at Ohio State University as "a retread, a cut-and-paste job of President Obama's 2008 campaign rhetoric," an inadequate defense of the president's "record of exploding deficits, job losses and fiscal mismanagement in Washington."
This is what's known in campaign work as "message discipline," hammering away relentlessly at the same basic theme, avoiding distractions, in an effort to prevent the press from shifting their focus away from the targeted issue. Team Mitt's superior message discipline accounted for much of Romney's success in the long primary battle that came to an effective end last month when GOP rival Rick Santorum suspended his campaign. While Santorum and other Republican challengers -- including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- always seemed to be fighting some controversial distraction, Romney kept plodding along, talking about jobs and the economy. Reporters seeking exciting scoops seldom got any juicy exclusives about the Romney campaign, which seemed to be operating on a strategy of methodical blandness. Having entered the campaign as the odds-on favorite -- the "It's His Turn" candidate in the Republican field -- Romney avoided controversy, watched a series of rivals rise and fall in the polls, and deployed his fundraising superiority with devastating effect at key moments.
Ruthless efficiency is the hallmark of a professional campaign operation. Watching Team Mitt in action during the primary season left no reason to doubt that, if sharp work by an experienced staff can make a difference, Romney's operation will deliver a solid performance for Republicans. The question now, as the general election campaign gets fully under way, is whether Team Mitt will be good enough to beat the equally professional Obama operation. Among the skeptics is Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner, who last week criticized the Romney campaign for having "taken the bait, reacting to whatever Team Obama has decided to make an issue." Klein cited three examples: Democratic operative Hilary Rosen's attack on Ann Romney, a report that Obama had once admitted eating dog meat, and the administration's "spike the football" celebration of the anniversary of the Navy SEAL raid that took out Osama bin Laden.
Republican reactions, Klein said, enabled those stories to "dominate the political headlines," distracting from a steady drumbeat of negative economic news: "If the campaign is about bin Laden, identity politics and silly controversies about dogs, an Obama victory is a lot more likely. To seize control of the campaign, instead of merely being reactive, Romney has to put Obama on the defensive about his own record."
Certainly this is good advice, although the pessimistic appraisal by Klein -- an excellent journalist who spent many years as an American Spectator reporter -- may overstate the extent to which the Romney campaign departed from its accustomed discipline. We're still in the spring-training phase of the general election fight and Team Mitt just finished off their remaining primary opposition. The GOP pushback against the Democratic message machine -- including Rosen's misguided effort to demean Ann Romney's ability to address women's economic concerns -- could be seen as a preliminary warm-up exercise for the Romney campaign, serving notice that they would cede none of the battlefield. The effort by Democrats to claim that Republicans were waging a "war on women" utterly failed. Obama led Romney by four points (49 percent to 45 percent) in a late March poll by Gallup, but Romney had squeezed ahead 46-45 in Gallup's most recent tracking poll. This positive trend for Romney (or, perhaps, this negative trend for Obama) has been mirrored in other polls: Less than a month ago, on April 10, Obama led the Real Clear Politics average of national polls by more than five points (48.5-43.2), but now leads by just over two points. The four most recent national polls show either a tie or Romney narrowly ahead.
What about the Electoral College? Romney's chances look promising there, too. An article in Sunday's New York Times seemed to find a suspicious amount of optimism for Obama in the key swing states, but could not ignore the fact that the nine crucial battlegrounds -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- are all states Obama won four years ago. In other words, Democrats begin the 2012 campaign playing defense, and there are indications that Obama is already facing a tough fight in many of those battlegrounds. Romney is ahead in the three most recent Florida polls, for example, and the latest poll from Ohio showed the Republican within two points of Obama there. More importantly, the focus on such traditional swing states shows that there is little prospect the Democrats could "spread the field" to challenge Romney in GOP strongholds. In fact, Obama's campaign may already be writing off hope of carrying North Carolina, the state that will play host to this year's Democratic convention. An ugly sex scandal involving the executive director of the state party has thrown North Carolina Democrats into disarray. Polls show a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage running strong in North Carolina; meanwhile, the White House found itself yesterday trying to "clarify" remarks by Vice President Joe Biden that seemed to endorse what most North Carolinians want to prohibit. "Hilarity ensues," as conservative blogger Ed Driscoll said.
Such Democratic blunders don't change the fact that defeating an incumbent president is always a difficult task, and the liberal media is unlikely to make that task easier for Mitt Romney's campaign. It's been 32 years since the last time an incumbent Democratic president lost re-election, and Obama is not yet as unpopular as Jimmy Carter. Then again, Obama's Republican opponent has just begun to fight the general election campaign, and tough attacks on the president's economic record -- like a new online video Romney just released -- can be expected to keep coming relentlessly in the next six months. Romney's experienced operatives have not failed to plan their campaign, and they do not plan to fail.
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