President Barack Obama got a hug and a lift. Mitt Romney had a swing and a miss.
The performance of the Democratic and Republican candidates in Florida last week told the tale of two campaigns. One feels a surge. The other looks troubled.
That’s not just a matter of appearance. Polls show Obama clinging to an inside-the-error-margin lead in Florida. The polls really start to matter now as undecided voters focus on the race and upcoming debates.
Public opinion will certainly change in these final two months. But the performances of the two campaigns last week in Florida give an indication of what could be in store.
Obama’s Florida highlight: A Republican pizza shop owner who hugged the president and lifted him off his feet in Fort Pierce last Sunday.
Romney’s Florida highlight: An uncomfortable Wednesday press conference in Jacksonville where he faced questions about “politicizing” the violent, deadly protests on an embassy and consulate in Cairo and Benghazi, Libya.
“He looked defensive,” said one Florida Republican campaign veteran, echoing others who didn’t want to speak on the record for fear of publicly breaking party codes of silence so close to an election. “It just didn’t look good.”
Romney didn’t sound quite right, either.
Romney claimed that Obama’s administration “sympathized” with the attackers when the Cairo embassy issued statements that “apologize for American values.”
Romney’s use of the word “sympathized” is strained. But there’s no persuasive evidence of any “apology” in the statements issued by scared staffers facing an angry mob in a foreign land.
An embassy staffer, amid the protests, denied this very claim on Twitter: “We did not apologize to anyone because we did nothing” wrong.
Dictionary accuracy aside, Romney’s comments hit the right notes with conservatives who blasted the press for focusing on their candidate’s misstatements.
But few could offer cogent defenses of what Romney said. They don’t want to talk much about Romney. Republicans want the election focused on Obama, a referendum on the president.
Democrats want what they call a “choice” election, a selection between Obama and Romney (and perhaps Libertarian Gary Johnson).
The Republican candidate helped the Democrats along by making misleading and inflammatory statements that drew attention to Romney.
“It was a missed opportunity. Mitt had it teed up, and he whiffed it,” another Florida Republican said. “I still think Romney wins Florida because the president has performed so horribly in this economy and a lot of seniors don’t want him and this is a foreign-policy failure. But this didn’t help.”
In wanting to make the president look like an appeaser, Romney decide to forgo the conservative narrative that Obama under-delivered on his 2009 speech in Britain where the president boasted of the “restoration of America’s standing in the world.”
What warnings did the U.S. have about the attack in Benghazi? Why was an ambassador — the first killed since 1979 — not more heavily protected in dangerous Libya? Why did Obama wait so long to comment on what happened? Was enough done to prepare for attacks on Sept. 11, 2012?
Did the Cairo embassy not read the newspapers? The Egypt Independent, after all, reported Tuesday that Egypt’s General Intelligence Service warned of a jihadi group planning to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Cairo.
Romney shied away from asking. He did say Obama’s administration sent “mixed messages to the world” because it initially decided to “stand by” the embassy statement — only to pull it down along with the embassy tweets.
But days later, Romney gave an ABC interview in which he, too, condemned the anti-Muslim video as “simply inappropriate and wrong” — just like the statement from the embassy that he criticized.
Romney also noted the video Innocence of Muslims is protected Constitutional speech — which the embassy did as well on Sept. 11.
Obama was well out of Florida by the time the uprising took place. His trip went off as planned, with the bonus of the feel-good bear hug that the news media lapped up.
The president’s top surrogate, former President Bill Clinton, was in Miami on Tuesday and in Orlando on Wednesday, and pointedly steered clear of the issue, which threatens to dog the administration if the protests continue.
Outside of the economy, if there’s anything that could damage the president in the polls, it could be the ongoing images of smoldering or besieged consulates and embassies, outside of which protesters chant “Obama, Obama! We are all Osama!”
Suddenly, a foreign policy wrapped around with the killing of Osama bin Laden could be a tougher sell. So might the statements of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who tried Sunday to downplay the role al-Qaeda might have played in the Benghazi attacks, even though Democrats like Florida Sen. Bill Nelson believe there’s probably a link.
Still, it’s difficult for Romney to make Obama look weak on foreign policy when the president gave the go-ahead to kill bin Laden and assassinate suspected terrorists via remote-control drone strikes, despite the opposition from nominal allies like Pakistan.
As the Middle East protests continued, Romney’s running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, came to Oldsmar in Tampa Bay at week’s end and spent just a few minutes on foreign policy.
Most of his speech was about the economy, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of a campaign that, before Tuesday, had called foreign policy “a distraction from the administration’s terrible economic record.”
“If we project weakness, they come,” Ryan said Saturday. “If we are strong, our adversaries will not test us and our allies will respect us.”
Whether that’s true or not (militants have violently attacked the U.S. under almost every Republican and Democratic president for the past three decades) is a subject for the campaign and, ultimately, voters to flesh out.
But Ryan’s speech was the type many Republican campaign hands wanted Romney to give. And that’s what makes Republicans just a little more nervous — and Democrats a little happier — these days in Florida.