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Why divisions in Romney campaign might matter

It's not a good sign when campaign aides start sniping at one another, in public, weeks before an election. What's striking in this case is that Mitt Romney is just three percentage points behind. Staff shake-up in the works?

By Staff writer / September 17, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney boards his campaign charter plane in Kansas City, Mo., after a refueling stop as he travels to Los Angeles on Sunday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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All happy presidential campaigns are alike; each unhappy presidential campaign is unhappy in its own way. For the Mitt Romney campaign, the problem today is that it appears to be an unhappy effort whose particular divisions are on full display in the media with the election now only a few weeks away.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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In this case, a lengthy piece in Politico by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei about unrest among Mr. Romney aides has served as a floodgate-opener. It depicts Romney’s top strategist, Stuart Stevens, as mercurial, skewers Mr. Stevens’s efforts to draft Romney’s convention speech as disorganized, and in general allows unnamed staffers and outside advisers lots of room to complain about one another.

Now, Republicans have long asserted that the mainstream media are biased against them and will do whatever they can to keep President Obama in office. They’ve also complained specifically about Politico, saying it’s full of former Democratic operatives. But for all that, the pushback on Monday’s piece from the right has been half-hearted. Some conservatives are using it as an opening to air their own worries about Romney’s effort.

Thus Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, a vocal Romney partisan, on Sunday outlined things Romney's campaign is doing that drive the right nuts, from using poor surrogates on the stump, to delaying major policy statements, to too little policy explanation and not enough talk about leadership.

Erick Erickson at the conservative RedState blog noted that he’s also heard lots of “angst” about Stevens from Republican donors and people close to the campaign.

"Things like this do not happen when the staff [is] focused on getting the candidate elected. Things like this happen when staff is focused on themselves,” Mr. Erickson wrote Monday.

Even Donald Trump got in his $2 billion-worth on "Fox & Friends" this morning, saying the GOP should be winning. “We’re not, so something’s wrong,” Mr. Trump said.

What do we think? In general, day-to-day campaign stories don’t matter. They’re the standing army of the media doing something to keep themselves occupied until real events occur. But this feels different. The story may reflect a reality that could change the campaign.

For one thing, we agree with Erickson – this means important people in the campaign aren’t all working together. Somebody is upset their speech draft did not get used at the Republican National Convention and is using the media to make that clear, for instance. Their underlying message is: “Don’t blame me when we lose."

But, in fact, Romney is close. That’s our second point: This story overshadows the fact that the ex-Massachusetts governor is only three percentage points or so behind Barack Obama. That’s not much of a gap, though the stability of the polls this year makes it seem like a chasm.

Mr. Obama gained a bit coming out of the conventions, so the media storyline has been that Romney is desperate. Well, staff backbiting sure makes that look true.

Third, Romney needs unity to change the narrative. Now he will have a much tougher time getting it. The campaign will pull together, issue statements that everybody’s in sync, and so forth. Maybe they even are or have been. But the fact that a story such as this has appeared feeds mistrust among staff factions. One way to stop this, of course, is for someone to quit, or Romney to fire somebody. Is it possible a staff shake-up is in the works?

A message shake-up seems already apparent. On Monday the Romney campaign launched a new series of ads designed to showcase policy proposals, with hardly a mention of opponent Obama's name.

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