Panic On The Trail/Romney Speech Update

Overreactions, as Howard Kurtz cool-headedly point out in today’s Washington Post, are common on the campaign trail.

To read most accounts, it’s been a frantic few days. Hillary Clinton has been hitting back at Barack Obama now that he has (finally, some might say) stepped up his rhetoric against her. Mitt Romney is to give the long-awaited ‘Kennedy speech’ in an attempt to allay doubts (and fears) about his suitability for the highest office on the grounds of his Mormon religion. Both Clinton and Romney have been front runners (Clinton nationally and Romney is several early-primary states), but now the race is beginning to tighten as we approach the Iowa caucuses (less than one month to go). Is Clinton’s campaign machine floundering now that it’s being seriously tested for the first time? Is Romney lying awake at night haunted by visions of Mike Huckabee – the ghost of Christmas yet to come?

Panic

Kurtz paraphrases the media’s considered reaction:

“OMG they must be panicking!!!!”

Probably not.

Clinton’s back and forth with Obama seems fairly innocous. In fact, Obama’s resurgence could be an unexpected boon for the Clinton campaign  – a bit of battle-testing before she has to face a Republican party for whom Clinton-bashing is the perhaps the last shared article of faith (and their area of greatest competence).

The Romney camp (long praised as the most efficient and disciplined on the Republican side), though surely concerned by Huckabee’s recent poll lead in Iowa, has been considering a speech on religion almost from day one. There are risks involved to be sure – not the least of which is that the speech gives the media the excuse to pore over the in-depth practices of Mormonism (something they’ve been too coy to do thus far) – but done right, this speech could be a huge boost (which is the very reason many of the commentators who are now dissecting Romney’s ‘panic’ have been urging him to make the speech for months).

Inadvertantly, in addition, as perennial Romney cheerleader Hugh Hewitt points out, the Huckabee rise may serve to lower expectations for Romney in Iowa – but given the amount he’s spent in the state, anything less than a second-place finish would still be disastrous.

More on the speech itself:

There are indications (no doubt compounding the perception of panic within the campaign) that this week’s decision was far from unanimous. Many in the campaign belived that dwelling on the Governor’s Mormonism was not a winning strategy in the summer – so why do it now?

Confronting the issue seemed to me unavoidable; it had to be addressed at some point. Rather than the Iowa polls I would suggest that the immediate catalyst for giving the speech now stems from worries that the gloves may be coming off, even in relation to personal attacks. So far Romney’s opponents have refrained from making many overt attacks on his religion, but the indications are that this is changing.  

Without a designated speechwriter, the Governor himself is the author of much of what he says. We know (from past performances) that the speech won’t be long, and we know (from what’s been said by the campaign) that it won’t be a ‘Mormon 101’. The speech is titled ‘Faith in America’ and is expected to be more a forceful defence of religious liberty and tolerance than a statement of personal beliefs.

For detailed (and I mean detailed) coverage of what’s expected to be in the speech check out Article VI blog. It has a decidedly pro-Romney slant, but contains links to speech coverage from all perspectives.

The event will take place on Thursday morning at the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. Governor Romney will be introduced by President George H.W. Bush (make of that what you will…)

Worst case scenario for Romney: a bumbling performance followed by saturation coverage of the less mainstream parts of Mormonism and of his campaign’s strategic error in scheduling the speech.

Best case scenario for Romney: he changes the direction of news coverage away from Huckabee’s rise after appearing commanding and presidential when addressing a weighty and difficult subject.

Romney’s principal problem during this campaign has been his inability to appear principled and authentic to all audiences. He and his campaign will hope that he is finally able to display these characteristics and to convince his audience, both evangelical christian and otherise, of his sincerity and resolve.

Perhaps the challenge of addressing the issue he least wants to talk about will be exactly what’s needed.

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