The limping Mitt Romney campaign was yesterday on notice from some of its own that it had better pick itself up quickly after a string of flubs and stumbles if it wants to avoid losing a presidential contest that by all normal indicators – such as the rotten economy – it should be on its way to winning.
Trying to do just that, Romney HQ launched an effort to turn around the disaster of the past two days – the leaked video of their candidate disparaging Americans who depend on government benefits (almost half the nation) – by painting Barack Obama as coddler-in-chief and first defender of redistribution of wealth by government.
But quelling the rumbles of disgruntlement in the Republican ranks, which on its own threatens to inflict further damage, may not be easy. It was being expressed variously last night by pundits normally loyal to the cause as well as by party operatives who are worrying now not just about the presidency, but also about how the cold winds from Mr Romney could chill the campaigns of Republicans running for Congress.
"It's time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one," Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote bluntly. "It's not big, it's not brave, it's not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It's always been too small for the moment." She went on: "An intervention is in order… Mitt, this isn't working."
The causes of the dismay are varied. They include second-guessing the Romney campaign for putting too few public rallies on his schedule and too many private fundraising events. Worse is the astonishment at the secret video released earlier this week by Mother Jones magazine, which saw Mr Romney writing off the 47 per cent of Americans who don't pay federal income tax as already in Mr Obama's camp. Addressing a donors' dinner in May he called them "victims" and said it was his job "not to worry about those people".
Mark McKinnon, a campaign strategist for John McCain in 2008, wrote on the Daily Beast website yesterday that it "was a moment that certainly revealed something about him. But not what I was hoping for. Just the opposite. It reveals a deeply cynical man, who sees the country as completely divided, as two completely different sets of people, and who would likely govern in a way that would only further divide us."
Party insiders are now banking on the three presidential debates, the first in Denver on 3 October, as almost the last opportunities for Mr Romney to better distinguish himself from the incumbent and win wavering voters to his side. Also to their advantage will be the money bomb that they and outside Super-Pacs are now preparing to drop on the President, notably in the nine or 10 key battleground states.
Yesterday the Republicans distributed a video seeking to besmirch Mr Obama for defending redistribution of wealth, which for most conservatives is akin to socialism. The video includes an audio recording from an appearance by Mr Obama in 1998 when he was a state senator in Illinois. "I actually believe in some redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody's got a shot," he is heard to say. Whether independent voters can be persuaded redistribution of wealth is so terrible a thing remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Democrats were already seizing the opportunity to use Mr Romney's words about the 47 per cent at the donors' dinner to hurt him. "One thing I've learned as president is that you represent the entire country," Mr Obama said on The Late Show with David Letterman in reference.
"Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him," wrote William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. Scott Brown, the Republican senator struggling to hold onto his seat in Massachusetts, moved to disown the top of his party's ticket. "That's not the way I view the world," he said of Mr Romney's observation. "As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in."
Not everyone is willing yet to say game over for Mr Romney. Indeed while a Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed him down 45 to 50 per cent against Mr Obama, an Associated Press survey published yesterday suggested the two men are still statistically tied. Both polls, however, were taken before the secret donors' tape debacle.
How Jimmy Carter's grandson had a role in video
It may be remembered as the tape that fixed the result of the 2012 election. For certain, it has hijacked the narrative for these few days in mid-September. How did all this happen?
The recorder was set on a table behind some crystalware, angled to catch Mitt Romney as he answered questions at a dinner for Fat Cat donors in a private home in Florida in May.
By who, is a mystery, but we know that a grandson of Jimmy Carter, James Carter IV, found segments of the recording. He thought Mother Jones might be interested and offered to liaise between the tape's author and David Corn, chief reporter at the magazine.
When the latter began releasing portions on Monday, Mr Carter saw the impact and told his granddad what he'd been up to. "James: This is extraordinary," the former President responded. "Congratulations! Papa."