In barely more than 24 hours after his decisive victory in the Florida primary, Mitt Romney managed to worry supporters on the right and delight detractors on the left. One more misstep and there will be a troubling trend for a candidate who was exceptionally sure-footed in Florida.
First came Romney's statement, the morning after his 14-point win over Newt Gingrich, that he is not concerned about the very poor in the United States because there are government safety-net programs to help them, and if those safety-net programs have gaps in them, Romney will fix them. Liberals immediately branded Romney out-of-touch and hard-hearted. Conservatives called him an advocate of status-quo welfare dependency, seemingly unaware of conservative prescriptions for poverty.
"You know, it's all about reflexes," Rush Limbaugh said of Romney Thursday. "It pains me to say this stuff ... he just doesn't have conservative reflexes. ... You've got to have a foundation, a basic understanding to have the reflexes, and they just aren't there, and I don't know if he can learn them."
In a Fox News interview Thursday night, Romney admitted he made a mistake in the "very poor" remark. "I'm concerned about all citizens," Romney said. "But now and then you misspeak. You have to acknowledge it." Still, Romney hurt himself at what should have been a moment of celebration.
As the controversy unfolded, Romney was in Las Vegas preparing to accept the endorsement of Donald Trump. The billionaire real-estate developer and TV personality was popular for a moment or two back in April when he flirted with a presidential run, but more recently he has been the target of much derision in the political world. Last Fall, a Fox News poll found that a Trump endorsement might actually hurt a candidate, rather than help; 31 percent of voters said a Trump endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidate, while 62 percent said it would make no difference, and just 6 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for a candidate.
Nevertheless, there was Romney, with his wife, Ann, standing beside Trump in a brief announcement -- no questions allowed -- at the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas. And just as with the "very poor" remark, Romney found himself the target of derision from all sides. "Trump is a tax-hiking, missile-defense-opposing, universal-health-care-advocating, eminent-domain abusing, Dem-donating clown," tweeted National Review Online's Dan Foster. "Now that Romney has nailed down the coveted birther/reality-TV-has-been demographic, he truly looks unstoppable," tweeted the lefty writer Chris Lehmann.
Minutes after the Trump-Romney appearance, the Gingrich campaign began sending out statements from a few months ago in which Trump bashed Romney. "I wasn't in love with the job he did in Massachusetts," Trump said last August. "He wasn't popular. He was a one-term governor. He didn't have high approval ratings. ... The Romneycare was obviously, you know, not a good situation."
Romney's move might make a bit more sense if he were in a tight race to win the Nevada caucuses this Saturday. He's not. There haven't been many polls in the state, but in the latest survey, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal poll, Romney leads Gingrich by 20 points, 45 percent to 25 percent. (Rick Santorum is even farther behind, with 11 percent, and Ron Paul trails with 9.)
And in Nevada, unlike most other states, Romney has an extra measure of safety in a sizable Mormon vote. Romney won the Nevada caucuses by a huge margin in 2008, and according to entrance polls, Mormons made up 26 percent of the caucus electorate, and Romney won 95 percent of them. It seems unlikely he would need a Trump endorsement to do it again.
Ironically, Romney's missteps come as he undertakes to correct other weaknesses in his campaign. After Florida, political insiders were more than impressed with Romney's ability to attack an opponent. They were impressed with his ability to outmaneuver Gingrich in debate. But they were not overly impressed with Romney's performance on the campaign trail, where he often gave speeches that were long on platitudes and short on substance.
It wasn't as if Romney had no positions on the issues; he has page after page after page of them. He just wasn't giving voters much to chew on. Now, moving to Nevada, there are indications he's trying to fix the problem, to engage voters with real proposals about the issues he chooses to emphasize.
It will probably take time for people to notice. There will be far more attention paid to Romney's two high-profile missteps. As polished and professional as the Romney campaign is, it still has work to do before it's ready to take on Barack Obama.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.