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Politics

Romney Must Move Fast to Quiet GOP Critics

The Olympics and the summer doldrums leave little time for the candidate to shore up party kingmakers before the Republican convention.

You hear it repeatedly from GOP leaders and operatives: So far the Romney campaign may be the most poorly orchestrated presidential operation since another former Massachusetts governor, Democrat Mike Dukakis, self-immolated in 1988. And those are among the most polite words being spoken by discreet Republican Party insiders.

Romney and his most respected campaign surrogates have been trying to comfort Republican high rollers who fear the campaign indeed is being mismanaged, and is a bit tone-deaf. Critics include right-wing backers such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and political pundits William Kristol and George Will. The four-alarm damage control effort will continue from now until the GOP convention for Team Romney.

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It’s no secret some Republicans believe this election should be a runaway victory for their party, given the lackluster economy, a GOP base that had been energized by a lively primary season, and a mountain of money in GOP coffers, courtesy of the Supreme Court's Citizens’ United ruling.

Romney, his detractors say, is simply banking on a tanking economy to carry him to victory, rather than countering the Obama campaign’s charges that while overseeing Bain Capital, he outsourced jobs overseas and stashed some of his millions in countries that provide tax shelters from the Internal Revenue Service. Recent polls show that the strategy is working for Team Obama. Unfair or not, it’s successfully defining Romney as an unscrupulous businessman who creates his own wealth, not jobs.

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There is, for sure, enough time for Romney’s critics to sing another tune, but party chieftains believe he has squandered the pre-July 4 honeymoon period, when candidates must define themselves and their agenda for the broader electorate. Now, in order to catch the attention of the voting public, Romney has to meander around wall-to-wall Olympic coverage and the dog days of August leading up to the GOP Convention in Tampa.

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Some Republicans, in particular, don’t like the optics of photo ops of Romney buzzing around on a Jet Ski while so many Americans are hurting financially. In addition, there are complaints that the campaign speaks out of both sides of its mouth. The mixed messages on the health care "tax" issue, delivered days apart last month by Romney and his top adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, set off rumblings among some of the campaign's top donors, who fear the campaign is in a tailspin rather than ascending.

Fehrnstrom broke ranks with GOP leaders when he said on TV that Romney believed the health care law’s individual mandate was a penalty, but not a tax. Romney had to walk back that comment a few days later. And it wasn’t Fehrnstrom’s first political gaffe, either. He’s the guy who said Romney’s tack to the far right during the primaries would be wiped away in an “Etch A Sketch” moment at the start of the more centrist-leaning general election season.

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GOP bigwigs have publicly called for a staff overhaul of the Boston-based Republican campaign, including firing Fehrnstrom. But throwing loyal long-time aides over the side isn’t Romney’s style, so the campaign so far has no plans to boot its trusted and insular cabal. Instead, telegenic and witty senior adviser Kevin Madden is playing a more public role on the candidate’s plane and on the airwaves in an effort to keep the campaign on message, and placate the rumblings from the party bosses who want heads to roll before it’s too late.

Romney very recently recruited a couple of proven hired guns to beef up his muddled message machinery. Danny Diaz and Kevin Sheridan are both quick-to-fire veteran bomb-lobbers who are both liked by reporters and feared by their opponents.

There are no guarantees that any of the changes will assuage critics, especially if it turns out that the problem is more about the candidate’s style than the campaign’s inner workings. Romney will need to try everything to find what works. Otherwise he could inherit the curse of the Boston-based contender. The last two presidential campaigns run out of Boston, by Dukakis and fellow Democrat John Kerry in 2004, both crashed and burned.

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