There is some consensus around the campaign blogosphere this morning–on both the left and the right–that Mitt Romney is giving up so much ground to Newt Gingrich because Romney is in the classic “prevent defense”–the formation that football teams use when they want to prevent long scoring plays to try and run out the clock.
This is a sensible analogy, but probably too kind to Romney’s latest debate performances. Romney’s mind doesn’t seem to be on the play clock, but rather the alarm clock. These debates have been the campaign equivalent of Romney waking up to find that it’s not time for the general election yet, and hitting the snooze button. Part of this stems from the fact that Romney is usually on his game when the subject is Barack Obama, but seems to have lost interest in the reality show spectacles the debates have become.
But it’s time for him to realize that some of the questions that have been tripping him up lately are of general-election concern, and his answers now will show up again later. Romney’s proclivity to stumble over questions at first and then prepare better answers to them in the future would make for good practice–60 years ago. But now, every moment is watched by many and recorded for those who didn’t watch. (The DNC already has an ad up this morning based on Romney’s unsteady response to a question about releasing his tax returns last night.)
Sometimes Romney is well prepared for questions. A good example from last night’s debate was when he scolded Gingrich for allotting himself partial credit for some of Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments. Romney pointed out, correctly, that Gingrich’s name appears once in Reagan’s diaries–and it is to dismiss an idea of Gingrich’s. (Reagan wrote: “Newt Gingrich has a proposal for freezing the budget at the 1983 level. It’s a tempting idea except that it would cripple our defense program. And if we make an exception on that every special interest group will be asking for the same.”)
But moments of Romney’s unpreparedness leave a mark. Are voters more concerned with what Reagan said in private about Gingrich or of the emerging reputation of Romney as a tycoon with something to hide? So which question should he prioritize? There are numerous football analogies he’s inviting, including the “prevent defense” comparison. But you could also say Romney is like the wide receiver who looks downfield before he catches the ball, only to drop it. Or the team that will play their most important game two weeks from now, so they forget about this week’s opponent.
Whatever your preferred analogy, Gingrich’s rise in the polls makes one thing clear: Romney’s strategy of “playing it safe” has become far too risky.