"People understand this wasn't really a gaffe," says John Brabender, Rick Santorum's chief strategist, referring to the now-infamous "Etch-A-Sketch" remark made by top Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom. "What this was was a peeling back of the onion where we saw the real Mitt Romney based on someone who's very close to him in his own campaign."
Unlike past Romney controversies in which Santorum sometimes declined to join in attacks on the frontrunner -- the flap over Romney's history at Bain Capital, for example -- the Etch-A-Sketch affair has the full attention of Team Santorum. "We're not looking for someone who's the Etch-A-Sketch candidate," Santorum said Wednesday in Louisiana. "We're looking for someone who writes what they believe in stone and stands true to what they say." In Arbutus, Maryland, when Romney spoke at an American Legion post Wednesday afternoon, Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart visited the parking lot, giving reporters a miniature Etch-A-Sketch. Asked what other plans Santorum had to call attention to the matter, Stewart said, "Lots."
Newt Gingrich, struggling to stay in the Republican race after a fourth-place finish in Illinois, also jumped into the controversy. "Given everybody's fears about Gov. Romney's flip flops, to have his communications director say publicly to all of us, if we're dumb enough to nominate him we should expect by the acceptance speech he'll move back to the left, triggers everything we should worry about," said Gingrich at a campaign stop in Louisiana. "I think having an Etch-A-Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we're going."
It all started Wednesday morning, when Fehrnstrom appeared on CNN and was asked:
It's fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so fared to right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?
Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.
Hearing the news, Brabender immediately saw an opening for Santorum. "The one thing about Republican primary voters is that they want to vote with their heart, and they believe what they believe passionately," Brabender says. "But if you look at Romney's career, he has always run as whatever he thought people wanted him to be."
Democrats pounced, too. "Here's a message for Romney," said a Democratic National Committee spokesman in a widely-distributed email. "When you sell out a woman's health, tell immigrants to 'self depart,' and promise to slash Social Security and Medicare, you don't get to start over." A group of left-wing activists planned to protest a planned Romney fundraiser planned in Washington Thursday morning.
The controversy left Romney's team frustrated yet still confident it would soon blow over. They point out that there is a difference between what a campaign aide says and what a candidate himself says -- and that the words at the center of the storm came from Fehrnstrom, not Romney himself. Also, they see the Etch-A-Sketch matter as part of a continuing barrage of small criticisms of Romney -- like those Democrats who keep re-telling the dog-on-top-of-the-car story -- while on the campaign trail Romney is addressing the big problems facing the country. Sooner or later, they believe, the big topics will win out.
But at the moment, Romney finds himself stuck in the middle of one of those out-of-nowhere campaign flaps in which his opponents are suddenly appearing on stage with -- of all things -- Etch-A-Sketches and the press is demanding he address the issue. After the town hall in Arbutus (in which no actual voter said anything about the story when Romney took questions), Romney made a brief, unplanned statement to reporters. Of course a general election campaign is different from a primary campaign in terms of organization, Romney explained. But not in terms of issues. "The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same," Romney said. "I'm running as a conservative Republican, I was a conservative Republican governor, I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee -- excuse me, at that point, hopefully, nominee for president. The policies and positions are the same."
It's Romney's hope that that will be enough to deal with the great Etch-A-Sketch flap. But it won't be if Romney's opponents have anything to say about it. "The Etch-A-Sketch thing is so iconic," says John Brabender. "People can visualize it…and it comes back to the fact that Romney is Romney."