Mitt Romney Camp Keeps Focus on White House, not on Rick Perry

Romney camp waiting to see if Perry's hot rhetoric gets him in trouble.

Aug. 19, 2011 — -- Since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the presidential race Saturday, he has bounded across the early primary and caucus states, grabbing headlines and the attention of his rivals and the media alike. He has uttered some eyebrow-raising comments on his first week on the stump and been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans.

Still, he has dominated the 2012 conversation even though it was Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who won the Ames, Iowa, straw poll Saturday.

But where's the frontrunner?

Mitt Romney has kept a relatively low profile all week, criticizing President Obama for his bus tour around the Midwest and his upcoming vacation on Martha's Vineyard. He held a campaign event in New Hampshire Wednesday and was fundraising in Wyoming Thursday, but he has kept his comments about the newest member of the 2012 club brief, calling him "a fine man and a fine governor."

The Romney campaign's strategy for taking on Perry is to keep the focus on criticism of Obama and to avoid taking on Perry directly for as long as possible, according to advisers and members of his finance team. They hope Perry continues to spout controversial statements such as the ones this week about the Federal Reserve and global warming.

"What sells in Texas doesn't always sell in other parts of the country," one member of Romney's finance team said.

Perry has taken a different approach, going after Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody and telling reporters in Iowa, "Take a look at his record when he was governor, take a look at my record. ... That's apples to apples."

Perry added that the difference between running a business and running a state is "apples to oranges."

When he was asked about Romney, Perry blew an air kiss and said, "Send him my love."

Despite being the nation's longest-serving governor, Perry lacks the experience of national reporters closely covering him and examining the decisions he made in office.

Romney went through such scrutiny during his last bid for the White House and despite some awkward comments -- most notably last week in Iowa when he told a heckler, "Corporations are people, too" -- he seems to have benefitted from going through the process before.

For now, the Romney camp seems to be following the plan to focus on Obama, not Perry, and hammer home its economic message.

"Mitt Romney considers Rick Perry a friend and believes he will add a lot to the discussion during the primary," Romney communications director Gail Gitcho said. "But he is going to stay the course and keep his focus on President Obama's failed economic policies. This country needs a president who understands how the economy works and has private-sector experience. That is why Mitt Romney is running."

Earlier in the week, Romney told reporters in New Hampshire, according to the Boston Globe, that his business background made him the better candidate to create jobs.

"I think understanding how the economy works by having worked in the real economy is finally essential for the White House, and I hope people recognize that," Romney said.

A member of Romney's finance team from Florida, who also is a friend of Perry's, said Romney is going to continue criticizing Obama and talking about the economy and "not get into the personal types of things."

The same fundraiser said he's "crazy about" his friend Perry and that the Texas governor is an "excellent candidate," but stressed that the Romney strategy will continue to be to press who is the better candidate to beat Obama in the general election.

"You've got the issue of: Well, now you have to win the primary," said the fundraiser, who requested anonymity. "Rick plays well in the primary because he throws out a lot of red meat and so that excites the base, his primary base. He'll be formidable in the primary. The question is: Who is going to be formidable in the general [election]?"

The same donor opened the door to a distinction that Romney will clearly make when the campaign needs to start contrasting the two.

"He's only been a politician for four years, Romney," he said. "He's a businessman for 25 years. Rick -- God love him -- has been in politics almost all his life."

For now, however, Perry was not central to recent Romney campaign communications.

Romney had a two-part meeting Monday with finance team members and fundraisers from across the country in New Hampshire. During the first part, at the Wentworth Hotel in Portsmouth, N.H., Romney staff and consultants gave presentations on the state of the race, according to several donors in attendance, but a "Perry strategy" was not prominent part of the discussion. Perry's entrance into the race just two days before was noted, but there was "no extended discussion."

The fundraisers then were invited over to the Romneys' Wolfeboro, N.H., home for a barbecue dinner.

There will be a similar event at the Romneys' home in California for fundraisers who couldn't attend the East Coast gathering later this month or early next month.

National finance chairman Spencer Zwick sent out an email Wednesday to donors who weren't able to be at the New Hampshire meeting, updating them on what they missed. ABC News was given partial access to the email and its authenticity was confirmed by other fundraisers. The memo discussed polling and fundraising, noting that the campaign's "spending rate is running 30 percent of the last campaign."

Zwick wrote that the Romney team is "moving from a campaign to a cause," but the memo did not mention the newest rival or any of the other Republican primary rivals.

"There is much more discipline in the campaign with spending," the email read, according to a fundraiser who received the memo. "That may mean he [Romney] does not win each primary. It does not mean he won't drop to second place for a period of time. But, in the end, he will be on top. He is more thoughtful and realizes he does not need to speak out to be heard on all issues. He's also more relaxed and just more himself, as I'm sure you've noticed at the events immediately."

Campaign advisers are willing to be more frank on condition of anonymity, admitting the "Perry strategy" is still being worked out. An adviser said the camp is "not sure yet" with how they'll deal with Perry.

"I think we handled it like we've handled it from the beginning. We are focused on what we have to do. Americans are really upset about Washington," the adviser said. "You can't read a poll [where Americans aren't] frustrated with Washington, and part of the frustration is the back-and-forth bickering. What they really want to hear is, 'What do you feel on the issues?,' ... I think they want to hear that message and they don't want to hear candidates bicker and fight with each other."

The adviser added: "As it [the campaign] has gone through all these different number twos here, if you will -- from Huckabee to Palin to Trump to Barbour and Daniels, all the rest, Bachmann, now Perry -- we've been focused and disciplined on doing what we think the voters want to hear and I don't think there's any reason to change that."

Neil Levesque, the director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., said it's a "smart strategy."

The institute hosted Perry Thursday at its "Politics and Eggs" breakfast and Romney has been a frequent visitor to Saint Anselm both this campaign and during his last one.

Levesque said that Romney has closely studied the unsuccessful presidential campaign of his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney in 1968.

"I believe that Romney is sort of taking the strategy that Nixon took in '68, which is a strong, but slow, methodical, 50-state plan to get to the nomination," he said. "You don't necessarily say outrageous things that spark your base too much but, again, it's a methodical, well-thought out plan.

"He's a very relaxed candidate now, compared to four years ago," Levesque said. "I think the schedule is a little bit tighter, meaning that they have this particular event that day and that's going to be their message event, and they know he knows what he's going to say, and it's carefully worded and scripted."

Levesque added: "Nixon lost twice. He didn't really excite the base too much, but he built up a lot of friends. He has a well-crafted message and he's stuck to it. He's a very disciplined candidate. Romney's father lost that year to Nixon. I think you learn the hard mistakes of your father and he has certainly studied the campaign. I see great similarities."

Levesque said the challenge for Perry is to be a "long-term candidate and someone that can win against President Obama."

GOP strategist and former George W. Bush deputy press secretary Tony Fratto agreed that Romney's approach is the "right strategy" for right now.

"[Romney] is viewed as the distinctly different candidate, not using hot language, more seasoned and in some quarters viewed as a more serious candidate," Fratto said. "At the end of the day, you are going to have a situation where the more muscular, blunt language [comes] from Gov. Perry and a more temperate language from Gov. Romney."

Fratto added that's it is clear there is an appetite on both sides of the aisle for "hot rhetoric."

"The question is: Is there still going to be the appetite in February when it comes time for primary voters to choose the guy they want to see in the Oval Office? And we don't know that right now," he said. "But both Perry and Romney are going to have a chance to test that with voters -- and what plays well in the summer of 2011 may not play as well in the spring of 2012."