PAINESVILLE, Ohio – For a campaign that has been so proud of its discipline and focus, Mitt Romney’s message on Friday was exceptionally diffuse. In the morning, he was bantering with television personality Kelly Ripa about his guilty pleasures, that he wears “as little as possible” when he sleeps and that he’s “kind of a Snooki fan.”
By afternoon, he was standing beneath sheets of pouring rain with his hand over his heart, starting his rally here with a moment of silence for the four Americans killed this week in Libya.
These were the discordant messages the Republican presidential nominee offered Friday, at the end of a trying week in which he struggled both to sound the right tone about the protests sweeping the Middle East and to get a foothold in the battleground states that will decide the November election.
Romney’s pre-taped appearance on “Live!,” the syndicated daytime television show hosted by Ripa and former New York Giants star Michael Strahan, was part of the candidate’s continuing effort to show his softer side to female voters — a group with whom he is struggling to connect.
On the set in New York, for a show scheduled to air next Tuesday, Romney gushed about Nicole Elizabeth “Snooki” Polizzi, the potty-mouthed star of the MTV series “Jersey Shore.” He marveled, “Look how tiny she’s gotten. She’s lost weight. She’s energetic. Just her spark-plug personality is kind of fun.”
But coming at a moment of international crisis, as U.S. embassies in the Middle East were beset by anti-American protests, the interview brought shudders from some Republicans who fear the Romney campaign is running aground in its final stretch.
“Deaver is turning over in his grave,” said one prominent Republican strategist, referring to Michael Deaver, the late image-maker for Ronald Reagan. The Republican asked for anonymity, because he did not want to go public with his growing despair over the GOP ticket’s prospects for winning this fall.
“I can’t get my head around this,” said John Weaver, a former strategist on Republican John McCain’s presidential campaigns. “What is their message? What is going on here? This is not a complicated race against Obama. This is about having a detailed plan to move this economy forward and don’t make any unforced errors and be disciplined and focused. They’re anything but that.”
Romney’s campaign defended its decision to do the Ripa interview, with advisers pointing to a number of moves by the Obama campaign on Sept. 11 they said were impolitic on a national day of remembrance: President Obama did a radio interview with a Miami DJ nicknamed “Pimp the Limp” and raised money in Las Vegas, while his top strategist, David Axelrod, and key surrogate, former president Bill Clinton, attacked Romney.
Fresh polling numbers in swing states — including Ohio, where Obama opened a 7-point lead in Thursday’s NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll — are beginning to sound like distress signals to the Romney campaign.
Still, Romney projected confidence even as his messages went in multiple directions. “There will not be a second term,” Romney declared, as rain soaked his outdoor rally in the Ohio town of Painesville. His introductory speakers shared the nominee’s optimism. A few called the showers “liquid sunshine,” while the pastor delivering a prayer referred to the rain as “tears of joy coming from the heavens.”
Although he has sharply criticized Obama’s foreign policy all week, Romney did not attack the president’s leadership abroad in his remarks here. Nor did he in an interview that aired Friday on ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”
While he stood by his earlier, confrontational comments on the Obama administration’s response to attacks in Egypt and Libya, Romney was conciliatory in his tone. He said his “red line” on Iran was the same as the president’s — contradicting public statements his foreign policy advisers have made this week suggesting that Romney would take action more swiftly than Obama.
“My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon,” Romney said. “It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world.”
Romney also declined to attack Obama over his characterization of Egypt as not being an ally, something his advisers have done. He pointed out that the country is, officially, a non-NATO ally, but explained what the president seemed to mean.
“The president’s saying ‘they are not’ may reflect the fact that there’s been a change in government and a change in relationship as a result of that,” Romney said. “And what their status will be going forward in terms of the relationship with our nation is something which I’m sure will be developing over time.”
Before an audience of campaign donors, however, Romney sharply condemned Obama for not making time to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later this month at the U.N. General Assembly.
“I thought the president’s decision not to meet with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was an extraordinarily confusing and troubling decision,” Romney said, drawing applause from an estimated 900 donors who joined him in New York for a breakfast that raised $4 million.
From there, Romney headed to Ripa’s studio, where in a rapid round of wide-ranging questions, he and his wife, Ann, offered up a trove of surprising new biographical facts.
Asked what he wears to bed, Romney said: “I hear the best answer is as little as possible.” That inclination on Romney’s part is perhaps a challenge at times, given his wife’s predilection for hogging the blankets — another detail of their lives that he provided in response to one of Ripa’s questions.
Romney also offered that Gene Hackman is his favorite actor, especially for his performance in the movie “The Birdcage.” So impressed is he with Hackman’s range that he would even like to see the actor play Mitt Romney some day, should Hollywood ever green light a project about a buttoned-up former Massachusetts governor’s quest for the White House.
As for who should play Ann, Romney suggested Michelle Pfeiffer.