Romney’s Week from Hell and the Lessons Thereof

At noon on Monday of January 16, it was Romney’s to lose.

Fresh off back to back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney had momentum. Newt had spent a week in New Hampshire snarling about the unfairness of negative ads and finished a dismal fourth place in single digits. He then spent the first four days in South Carolina snarling about Bain capital, offending the very voters he needed to regain his momentum. Huntsman, who had placed a respectable third in New Hampshire, ended his campaign and endorsed Romney. And a group of social conservatives had endorsed Santorum over the weekend, elevating his stature, diminishing Newt’s and most important for Romney, ensuring that the social conservatives of South Carolina would remain divided between Gingrich, Perry and Santorum.

Then everything changed. Newt found his voice. Romney lost his rhythm.

Monday night Newt blew all away with a stellar debate performance in an exchange with Juan Williams that will live in history as one of the great moments of political theater. Suffer Santorum, who was the real loser of the exchange. Gingrich did it again on Thursday night in an exchange with John King, forcefully rebutting the allegations of his ex-wife, and tapping deep seated resentment about the double standards of the main stream media. On points, Santorum won the Thursday debate. It did not matter. Pure theater and emotion will always trump debate points.

Romney, on the other hand, lost his rhythm during his debate on Monday, and clumsily fumbled a question about his tax returns. He fumbled again the next day when he unnecessarily volunteered that he pays only a 15% rate on his annual multi-million dollar income. The next day we learned that he has money parked in the Cayman Islands. And during the Thursday debate, he still appeared unsure on his feet about when he planned to release his tax returns and how many years of his returns he plans to release. (Note: Nearly all of these wounds were self-inflicted.)

Then Perry dropped out and endorsed Newt. And we learned Romney did not win Iowa after all.

On Monday January 16, Rasmussen had Romney up by 14 points in South Carolina.

On Saturday, January 21, Romney went down by 12 points, losing nearly every county. And now everything has changed.

Lessons? There are several.

1. It’s never over until it’s over. Never, never, never quit until the last vote has been counted.

2. It’s never too late to switch tactics. Newt was off game and off message for six days after his loss in New Hampshire. Then he found his voice.

3. Campaigns must be nimble. When Newt correctly surmised his message was not working, he switched gears. Romney did not, either because he could not or because his top heavy consulting team could not agree about how to stem the tide of votes to Gingrich. (It is clear Romney’s team knew it was happening. And clear they knew the day before that Romney would lose)

4. A day is a lifetime during the final stages of the campaign when the media and the voters are engaged. An ill-considered remark under that kind of glare can send a campaign into the crapper. Get your sleep and stay rested, for tired candidates say stupid things.

5. Never play defense. John King did Newt a favor by asking about his ex-wife. Newt took a fast ball and hit a home run. It will remain one of history’s great lessons in how to turn a nasty question to one’s advantage by playing offense.

6. Debates matter. Without them Newt would be cleaning his locker. Instead, he’s headed to the playoffs.

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Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.

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