After a few shaky weeks, the Romney kibitzers are calling for a big staff shakeup, apparently on the assumption that his footsoldiers have been responsible for the bumps in his campaign trail. Fingered particularly is his longtime Boston aide and spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom.
It was he who not unreasonably said the mandate contained in the Obama health care law was a penalty rather than a tax, as the Supreme Court had so recently divined. Apparently, all he was doing was reiterating what Mitt Romney himself as governor had said about his similar plan in Massachusetts — that it was a "penalty."
The political problem here was that this interpretation would put Mr. Romney at odds with Republican strategists ready to hammer President Obama as even more of a tax-raiser than they were claiming him to be before the whole dustup over "Obamacare."
In Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign, political strategist James Carville had what proved to the be the winning slogan: "It's the economy, stupid!" The expression was a pointed reminder to all members of the campaign staff in Little Rock that the path to victory was a laser focus on the economic woes under incumbent PresidentGeorge H.W. Bush.
That was not the only rap against Mr. Bush in the 1992 campaign. He was a reluctant and whining campaigner who had to be egged on by a superior staff of political professionals. He also suffered from having broken his 1988 convention pledge: "Read my lips: no new taxes!" But in the end, it was the focus on the weak economy by Mr. Clinton, a superior campaigner, that cost Mr. Bush a second term.
Mr. Romney and his own staff this year had pretty much been adhering to Mr. Carville's slogan and strategy. But that was before the Supreme Court ruling on President Obama's health care law intruded, shattering the Romney crowd's anticipation that the four conservative jurists on the highest bench would get rid of "Obamacare" for them.
Instead, the Affordable Care Act's survival, thanks to the temporary desertion of Chief Justice John Roberts, swung the spotlight on Mr. Romney's rather uncomfortable and confusing position on whether the law's insurance mandate was really a tax and not a penalty, requiring him to clarify.
It brought to mind again his late father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, seemingly forever saying something and then having to straighten out the mess he had made. My old column partner, Jack Germond, announced at the time he was having a special key installed on his portable typewriter that, with one stroke, would print: "Romney later explained."
So maybe instead of just shaking up the Mitt Romney campaign in this coda of campaign distress, the slogan instructing his staff should be: "It's the candidate, stupid!"
It's always easy when a political campaign hits a squall to lay the fault on staff work or lack of it. The first sign of a sinking candidacy often is a flurry of staff firings when just as often the problem may well be in the candidate himself.
In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain, after a successful staff shakeup in the primaries, harpooned his own candidacy by canceling out of a debate with Mr. Obama and calling for a White House meeting on the economy, only to sit there stonefaced while Mr. Obama stole the show. In the 2004 campaign, John Kerry gummed up the works himself by artlessly saying he voted for a funding bill for the U.S. forces in Iraq before he voted against it. And so it goes.
Then there is the simple matter of personal appeal — or, as it's called, likability. No matter how efficient a campaign staff may be, if the candidate lacks a definable, or even indefinable, quality — be it warmth, gravitas or whatever — voters will often have trouble seeing him or her as president. Remember Michael Dukakis in that army tank in 1988?
All through this year's presidential primaries, much was said about Mr. Romney's inability to stir the multitudes. Some said he was too moderate for an increasingly conservative party, others that he was too bland. But he pressed on until he had the delegates to nominate him.
Yet, for all that, he still seems somewhat a mystery man to many Americans. For all the staff assistance, it's still up to the candidate to close the sale.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.