As Mitt Romney moves closer to clinching the Republican nomination, the front-runner is facing fresh doubts about his commitment to core party principles after a top aide’s televised gaffe amplified critics’ charges that he is a political shape-shifter.
The former Massachusetts governor is within reach of securing his party’s nod — well ahead of his rivals in convention delegates, polls and campaign cash after his latest win in the Illinois primary. Still, he was thrown on the defensive yesterday when a longtime adviser compared his campaign to an Etch A Sketch, a toy that can be shaken to erase what is marked on its surface.
The issue arose when the aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, was asked on CNN whether he is concerned that Romney might be forced by his Republican opponents to take extreme positions during the primary that could alienate independent voters in a race against President Barack Obama.
“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”
The remark marred what would otherwise have been a triumphant day for Romney, 65, the day after his Illinois victory on March 20. He won the endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who often had been mentioned as a possible late entrant to the Republican race if the party refused to embrace Romney.
Instead, the Etch A Sketch comment handed ammunition to Romney’s Republican rivals and Democrats as they portray him, a second-time presidential contender, as an inauthentic candidate.
“You are not looking at someone who is the Etch A Sketch candidate,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told a cheering crowd on Wednesday at a rally in Mandeville, La., where he shook one of the toys to make his point.
The Romney campaign today tried to move past the flap and declare the Republican primary over. Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, told reporters in an email: “You know you have reached the end of a long, hard-fought campaign when your opponents are waving around children’s toys at campaign events.”
Shares of Ohio Art, the Bryan, Ohio-based company that makes the toy, more than tripled as news of Fehrnstrom’s comment and its political fallout — as well as pictures of the iconic red tablet — dominated cable television and the Internet. Worth $4.00 at market close on Wednesday, it was trading at $12.50 today —- its highest price since December 2003.
Santorum’s top adviser, Alice Stewart, appeared outside a town-hall meeting Romney held in Arbutus, Maryland, handing out Etch A Sketches.
Ferhnstrom “acknowledged that his conservative credentials can come and go with the climate, just like an Etch A Sketch, and we can’t have that,” Stewart said of Romney yesterday, holding a miniature pink version of the toy. “It confirms what a lot of conservatives have been afraid of.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth in the Illinois primary, posted on Twitter: “Etch A Sketch is a great toy but a losing strategy.”
After initially ignoring shouted questions about the issue as he greeted voters at his Maryland event, Romney made a rare point of assembling reporters moments later to address it. He said he wouldn’t change his “policies and positions” in a race against Obama.
“Organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile,” Romney said, refusing to take additional questions on the subject or what it might say about his candidacy. “The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same. I’m running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I’ll be running as a conservative Republican nominee.”
The day started off better for Romney, who trumpeted Bush’s endorsement on Twitter, saying, “March 21 is turning into a pretty big day.”
Bush, who had remained neutral as Romney claimed a 14- percentage point victory in Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, is the latest top Republican to call for an end to the prolonged primary fight. Romney said Bush telephoned him early yesterday with news of the endorsement.
“Now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall,” Bush said in a statement.
It wasn’t the first time Romney has seen the boost from a primary victory evaporate swiftly after a comment by him or one of his aides underlined a concern about him among Republicans.
In the weeks after his 16-point win in New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary, Romney was dogged by his refusal to release his tax returns, while he said he probably paid a tax rate of about 15 percent -- lower than many taxpayers -- and dismissed hundreds of thousands of dollars he had earned from speeches as “not very much” money.
The morning after his victory in Florida, Romney said in a television interview that he was “not concerned about the very poor” because they have many programs to help them. He later said those comments were taken out of context and he had only meant to emphasize that his focus would be on the middle class.
Both remarks highlighted questions about whether Romney -- a former private-equity executive whose net worth is estimated as high as $250 million -- can connect with average Americans.
Santorum, stung by a loss in Illinois that undercut his claim to be strong in politically competitive areas, sought to regain momentum by focusing on Louisiana’s March 24 primary. The South has proved a favorable region for him, playing to his strength among evangelical Christians. Santorum, 53, told reporters in Harvey, Louisiana, yesterday that Romney isn’t “someone that conservatives can or should trust.”
“They should all start supporting me, because I am the strong conservative candidate,” Santorum said.
Some of the people who came to his rally agreed.
“I would vote for Romney, only I would not be happy,” said Linda Terrebonne, 60, a retired Louisiana Clerk’s office worker who is supporting Santorum.
After Louisiana this weekend, the nomination contest moves to primaries on April 3 in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Romney now has 563 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination, according to the Associated Press. Santorum has 263 delegates, to Gingrich’s 135 and Paul’s 50, according to the AP count.
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