Publicly, Mitt Romney and his allies are cautiously optimistic that the Republican challenger will beat President Obama in November; privately, Team Romney is apparently complaining to Politico about why they think their candidate is losing. In a lengthy, gossip-filled exposé on the inner workings — and foibles — of the Romney campaign, Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei speak with mostly unidentified "Romney aides, advisers, and friends" about how a candidate running on his business competence has ended up atop such a dysfunctional organization. "Only a fool would declare the race over at this point," says Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News, but Politico has served up a pretty "devastating perspective on a presidential campaign in total disarray." Here, five highlights from this inside look at a high-stakes, high-pressure political brain trust:
1. Meet the scapegoat: Stuart Stevens
The bulk of the article is internal griping about Romney's chief strategist, Stuart Stevens. Allen and VandeHei describe Stevens as Romney's "mercurial campaign muse" with a "mad-professor aura," an eccentric list of hobbies and interests, and a "big-city, Hollywood aura" that doesn't sit well with some conservatives. One colleague calls the 58-year-old Mississippi native a "tortured artist," but "even people who like Stevens and wish him well say that he simply has too many jobs within the Romney campaign," says Rich Lowry at National Review: Chief strategist, chief ad maker, and chief speechwriter. To get a sense of Stevens' importance, say Allen and VandeHei, imagine George W. Bush's 2000 campaign "with one person playing the roles of Karl Rove, Mark McKinnon, and Michael Gerson."
2. Stevens spiked two versions of Romney's convention speech
Politico's "prime example" of how Stevens has hijacked Romney's campaign is "an exquisitely detailed chronology of how Romney botched his convention speech," says Marc Ambinder at The Week. Stevens tapped veteran Republican scribe Peter Wehner to write the big speech, but when Wehner turned in a draft he was pleased with, Stevens scrapped the speech eight days before the convention, "frantically contacted" two other speechwriters, John McConnell and Matthew Scully, for a rewrite, then used only one paragraph of their draft. "The speech that was actually delivered, it turned out, had been cobbled together by Stevens and Romney himself," Allen and VandeHei report, and they made "a colossal oversight: Romney did not include a salute to troops serving in war zones, and did not mention al Qaeda or Afghanistan."
3. Stewart also gave Clint Eastwood carte blanche
"And then there was Eastwood's speech, or, as Politico more accurately puts it, his 'rambling comedy routine,'" says Taylor Berman at Gawker. The actor was added to the program mere weeks before the convention, after Eastwood and Romney chatted at an Idaho fundraiser, and Stevens was so enamored of "the idea of the tough-talking American icon greeting the millions of viewers tuning in to the main event" that he let Eastwood be the only speaker to go live with no vetting. "The result was amazing and hilarious," says Gawker's Berman, "but, alas, terrible for the campaign." I figured that if anyone but the top strategist had been responsible for the Eastwood debacle, says National Review's Lowry, "that person would have been canned." Now we know why no heads have rolled.
4. Romney is unlikely to fire anyone
Despite Politico's "blistering" pile-on, Stewart's job is safe, according to a senior Romney adviser, says McKay Coppins at BuzzFeed. That's classic Romney, a campaign official tells Politico. "Mitt is a sticker — he stays with you," a trait evident from his years at Bain, where a bad investment wasn't a career-ender. That means "none of this is going to get fixed. This is the organization, and this is who Mitt is betting on to win." Another Politico source — "a person who recently was alone with Romney" — has a softer take: "Big changes would destabilize the thing."
5. Ultimately, this article is about Romney
"Inside-campaign dynamics are always fascinating," says National Review's Lowry, but "this ultimately comes down to the kind of campaign Romney wants to run." If he wanted to, say, "get more substantive," he could "do it tomorrow (and should)." Since Romney pasted together his own speech, we also get a view at his "fairly appalling" set of priorities, says the Philadelphia Daily News' Bunch. Leaving out the troops "speaks horribly of a man so focused on becoming 'America's CEO' that the very concept of a commander-in-chief is a distant afterthought." That was a mistake, says The Week's Ambinder, but a small one. This kind of internal sniping always happens in these big, unwieldy presidential campaigns, and certainly as a "premortem obituary," the Politico piece is premature. This race is far from over, and "if Mitt Romney loses, he will lose because he is Mitt Romney, and not because Stuart Stevens is a disorganized, charming, inconsistent half-brilliant half-crazy consultant."