Want a preview of the hyper-speed political warfare that will mark the general election campaign? Look no farther than a skirmish, conducted first on Twitter and later everywhere else, that erupted Wednesday night over a Democratic strategist's accusation that Ann Romney has "never worked a day in her life."
It started on CNN, when Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic operative, appeared in a segment alongside fellow Democrat Paul Begala and conservative blogger Erick Erickson. Rosen denounced Republicans for -- she claimed -- wrongly attributing the phrase "war on women" to Democrats. And then, Rosen said this:
With respect to economic issues, I think actually that Mitt Romney is right that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their family and the like. But he doesn't connect on that issue, either. What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing. Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why we worry about their future.
Within seconds, Rosen's statement that Ann Romney has "never worked a day in her life" began to burn up Twitter. Mrs. Romney, after all, had raised five children, as well as dealt with MS and cancer. That was work, no matter how much money her husband made.
The Romney campaign jumped on Rosen's remarks with a speed that no Republican campaign has shown in the past. First, campaign staffers sent out tweets hitting Rosen. "Obama adviser Hilary Rosen goes on CNN to debut their new 'kill Ann' strategy, and in the process insults hard-working moms," said top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. The campaign then sent out word that Rosen, who has worked for the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic organizations, is now part of the same firm, SKDKnickerbocker, as Anita Dunn, a prominent member of the Obama circle. And then came word that Rosen had visited the White House at least 35 times, according to publicly-available White House visitors logs. And then that Rosen attended last month's state dinner at the White House.
Sensing an opportunity, the Romney campaign rolled out the big guns and had Ann Romney, who had never sent out a message on Twitter before, send out her first: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." Mrs. Romney quickly had thousands of followers.
The story really took off when Obama campaign officials scrambled to distance themselves from Rosen. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina tweeted: "I could not disagree with Hilary Rosen any more strongly. Her comments were wrong and family should be off limits. She should apologize." Top Obama aide David Axelrod added, "Also disappointed in Hilary Rosen's comments about Ann Romney. They were inappropriate and offensive."
Rosen herself was in no mood to apologize. After the controversy erupted, she tweeted, "When I said on [CNN] Ann Romney never worked I meant she never had to care for her kids AND earn a paycheck like MOST American women!" Rosen added the hashtag "#Truth" to emphasize her point. Rosen later tweeted that Mitt Romney "now makes up false concern for women's economic struggle" and "he should stop saying that she is his guide to women's economic problems. She doesn't have any." To that, Rosen added the hashtag "#IsntItObvious?"
Rosen later posted an extensive explanation at the Huffington Post. "I have nothing against Ann Romney," Rosen wrote. "She seems like a nice lady who has raised nice boys and struggled with illness and handles their long term effects with grace and dignity…What is more important to me and 57% of current women voters is her husband saying he supports women's economic issue because they are the only issues that matter to us and then he fails on even those.
With the Romney campaign on offense and the highest levels of Team Obama on defense, the press quickly picked up on the fight. It was clearly news in light of the recent sparring between the campaigns over women's issues and polls showing Obama with a significant lead over Romney among women voters.
But the episode showed something else, and that was about the Romney campaign. Presented with an opening, Romney's staff jumped on the controversy with impressive speed, forcing top Obama officials to respond before most people even knew there was a story. The fracas suggests that Team Romney is determined to aggressively -- really aggressively -- pursue any chance to press an advantage against Obama. If the president's re-election team thought they were facing a slow-moving, not-up-to-the-task Republican rival, they learned differently Wednesday night.