2:05am

Fri May 4, 2012
Presidential Race

Challenger's Challenge: Romney's Bid To Make News

Originally published on Fri May 4, 2012 8:57 am

Tuesday, President Obama scored a foreign policy success when he traveled to Afghanistan. Now he's being buffeted by the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. Meanwhile, Romney had been getting some attention for his critique that the president was politicizing the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. That is, until Obama went to Afghanistan, signed an international agreement and addressed the troops and the nation.

At this point in the presidential race, Romney faces the difficult task of outdoing an incumbent president.

Finding A News Hook

A president is often hostage to events he can't control — case in point may be the unfolding drama of Chen in China. Wednesday, Romney tried to take advantage of this new foreign policy controversy. Campaigning in the swing state of Virginia, he hedged his remarks but still ripped into the president for the handling of Chen.

"According to these reports — if they're accurate — that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family," Romney said, "if these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration."

Romney's comment on Chen's case, which is still unfolding, fits into his campaign pledge to get tougher on China. GOP strategist Ed Rogers says this is a good example of the choices a challenger has to make.

"It's a challenge to be creative and come up with a news hook that the press will buy into — every day," Roger says. "Every day, there's news coverage from now on about Romney. He either makes it, or somebody makes it up for him. It's going to be difficult. It's the hardest part of this challenge, really."

How Do You Beat Air Force One?

Romney learned just how hard it is to run against an incumbent president as Obama controlled the story of the bin Laden anniversary.

"The truth is that no challenger or his campaign can ever match the size and grandeur and spectacle and influence of a sitting president," says Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. "It's simply impossible to."

Jordan has been on the receiving end of this dynamic, when he worked for John Kerry in 2004. He says Obama is doing a good job of using all the tools at his disposal.

"His ability to create visuals, to create a story and to set the policy and political agenda is just incomparable. There's nothing Romney can do about it," Jordan says.

While the commander in chief was jetting off on Air Force One to a dramatic middle-of-the-night visit to Afghanistan, Romney was delivering pizza to a fire station at ground zero with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, complaining that Obama was politicizing the bin Laden anniversary.

Rogers gives the Romney camp "no better than a C-plus" for how they responded to the Obama campaign's suggestion that Romney may not have sanctioned a similar raid to get bin Laden.

"They didn't have a former uniformed senior general to go out and talk about that on Romney's behalf. They used campaign hands, they used talking points," he says.

A Message That Resonates

Many Republicans think part of the answer for Romney is to broaden his message — to do more than just remind voters that they aren't better off than they were four years ago.

"I don't think that's going to be enough," says Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

He says Romney is going to have to find some way to overcome the appearance that he is indifferent to the concerns of average Americans.

"He's going to have to do that by embracing some kind of agenda for social mobility and opportunity, and to make a sophisticated argument that conservative and free-market ideas actually achieve this," Gerson says. "It's going to require some serious policy work. He's going to have to identify himself as ... not just the alternative to three years of failed economic policy, but as embodying some kind of economic hope."

Over the next several months, finding an agenda beyond a critique of the president will be one of Romney's main challenges. In the meantime, he'll have to decide how he wants to insert himself into the news of the day — whether it's a Chinese activist or a monthly jobs report.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's move now to presidential politics. President Obama this week seemed to own the stage with a dramatic trip to Afghanistan and address to the nation on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.

Yesterday, however, Republican Mitt Romney's campaign saw an opening with the case of a Chinese dissident. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: A president is often hostage to events he can't totally control - case in point may be the unfolding drama of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Yesterday, Mitt Romney tried to take advantage of this new controversy. He hedged his remarks, but still ripped into the president for the handling of Chen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: According to these reports, if they're accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family, if these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration.

LIASSON: Romney's comment on Chen's case, which is still unfolding, fits into his campaign pledge to get tougher on China. GOP strategist Ed Rogers says this is a good example of the choices a challenger has to make

ED ROGERS: It's a challenge to be creative and come up with a news hook that the press will buy into every day. Every day, there's news coverage from now on about Romney. He either makes it, or somebody makes it up for him. It's going to be difficult. It's the hardest part of this challenge, really.

LIASSON: On Thursday, Romney was taking advantage of the potential damage that a high-profile Chinese dissident could do to the president, while Mr. Obama struggled to balance human rights and the U.S. relationship with China. But on Tuesday, it was Romney who had been in a box, as the president drove the story of the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Democratic strategist Jim Jordan.

JIM JORDAN: The truth is that no challenger or his campaign can ever match the size and grandeur and spectacle and influence of a sitting president. It's simply impossible to.

LIASSON: Jordan has been on the receiving end of this dynamic when he worked for John Kerry in 2004. He says Mr. Obama is learning how to use all the tools an incumbent has.

JORDAN: His ability to create visuals, to create a story, and to set the policy and political agenda is just incomparable. There's nothing Romney can do about it.

LIASSON: On Tuesday, while the commander-in-chief was jetting off in the middle of the night to Afghanistan, Romney was delivering pizza to a fire station at ground zero with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and complaining that the president was politicizing the bin Laden anniversary.

ROGERS: No better than a C-plus.

LIASSON: Rogers gives the Romney campaign a poor grade for how it responded to the Obama camp's suggestion that Romney might not have sanctioned a similar raid to get bin Laden.

ROGERS: They didn't have a former uniformed senior general to go out and talk about that on Romney's behalf. They used campaign hands. They used talking points.

LIASSON: But many Republicans think Romney also needs to do something bigger in order to compete with the president, something more than just reminding voters they aren't better off than they were four years ago.

MICHAEL GERSON: I don't think that's going to be enough.

LIASSON: Michael Gerson is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He says if Romney lays out a set of ideas, he'll also be able to fix another problem: the appearance that he's indifferent to the concerns of average Americans.

GERSON: He's going to have to do that by embracing some kind of agenda for social mobility and opportunity, and to make a sophisticated argument that conservative and free-market ideas actually achieve this. It's going to require some serous policy work. He's going to have to identify himself as a - not just the alternative to, you know, three years of failed economic policy, but as embodying some kind of economic hope.

LIASSON: Over the next several months, as the president controls what he can and tries to manage what he can't, Romney has to find an agenda beyond a critique of the Mr. Obama. And he'll have to decide how to wants to insert himself into the news of the day, whether it's a Chinese dissident or a monthly jobs report. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.