EUCLID, Ohio – On Monday the Romney campaign learned something once again about the best-laid political plans:
They often go awry.
The campaign had planned Monday's town hall event in Northeast Ohio to be all about the economy and a middle class the campaign described as "pushed to the brink" by President Obama's policies. There was a sharp infographic prepared, a web ad produced and a candidate prepped with an array of anecdotes from his chats with middle class Americans.
"We don’t have enough people that have got good jobs. Incomes have dropped," Romney told an audience of some 500 supporters sympathetically. "It’s harder. Americans in the middle class are feeling squeezed, even if they have a job. And obviously most of our citizens have a job, but boy, these are tough times.”
Romney came in with a message but was knocked off track by voters’ questions.
"I’d appreciate your comments on an investing strategy that seems to have resulted in several million dollars of your personal income taxes being paid to foreign countries instead of ours," asked the second person to take the microphone.
“I’ll look at it," Romney laughed tightly. "I’m not familiar with that. I didn’t think I’d paid any foreign income taxes but I’ll be happy to take a look at it.”
Three questions later, a woman stood up and said, after posing a question, she thought the President Barack Obama ought to be tried for treason. Romney didn't address the comment, and the story took on a life of its own by the time he had finished the event. (He eventually disavowed the comment.)
Romney campaign staffers have long acknowledged the dangers of town hall events - they're less scripted, and anything can happen - but by and large Romney excels at the format and for voters in some states like New Hampshire and even Michigan they're a part of the political tradition and therefore a necessary risk.
But buried beneath the deviations and distractions at today's events were at least two subtle tactical shifts by Romney and his campaign that should not go unnoticed.
First, Romney confronted head-on the issue of rising college costs, and attempted to blunt President Obama's advantage among young voters by accusing the president - who held his first two official rallies of the campaign this weekend on college campuses in Ohio and Virginia - of effectively trying to buy the youth vote with student loans.
"In an effort to try to and reengage college students and graduate students to get involved in the Obama campaign, and they’re pulling back, obviously,” Romney said. “They’re not as enthusiastic as they were. In an effort to try to get them engaged, he’s going to promise to give a lot of free stuff to them. And to say, I’ll pay for your education, or I’ll get rid of the loans, I’m only guessing, but my expectation is that he’s going to find—as politicians do—promises of free stuff as a way to get people to vote for him."
Romney's second shift wasn't what he said, but the order in which he said it. Romney has long closed his campaign speeches with anecdotes from his service as CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics. They tend to be stories designed to uplift and inspire, and come as well-received "kickers" to Romney's traditionally more negative stump speech.
As Romney has sought to reintroduce himself to the broader electorate, the stories have become more regular - going from a couple of mentions per week to the closing thought of his last three campaign appearances.
On Monday an upbeat Romney, who has said he plans to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2012 games in London, wasted no time. He opened his remarks with an Olympic anecdote.
Just as planned.