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First Thoughts: An off-script week

Both campaigns were taken off script this week. The Obama campaign didn’t think this week would be about gay marriage when it began, and the Romney campaign certainly didn’t think it would have to be talking about doing “stupid things” 50 year ago about his behavior in prep school. … What does the story mean for Romney? For one, it highlights that he hasn’t been clearly defined. ‘Who is Mitt Romney?’ is still an open question and not completely filled in. … Why it doesn’t make sense to chide a local reporter. … The White House tries to re-write recent history … Obama’s up with his first bailout ads … And Romney’s paths to 270.

From NBC’s Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Natalie Cucchiara, and Brooke Brower

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U.S. President Barack Obama, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

*** An off-script week: This is how the week began and ended -- you’re Team Obama, you thought the week was going to be about your campaign launch and your $25 million ad campaign kickoff (first Detroit bailout ads, morning in America, don’t change horses in midstream – see more below). Instead, the week will forever be known as the time you came out for gay marriage; not exactly the campaign rollout they envisioned. You’re Team Romney, you thought this be the week would be about you responding to Obama’s launch and be able to respond with the economy, do your own national tour of sorts, going to some swing areas like Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Omaha, NE. Instead, you end the week on having to defend yourself against a 50-year-old story about your candidate’s behavior in prep school – a reminder that you may have high name ID, but people still don’t know who you are.

*** Crisis management 101: On a technical front, the Romney campaign appears to have picked the fastest path of trying to get this story behind them. Let the candidate vaguely address, accept the fact you’ll have a bad news cycle or two and hope it’s done by next week. Deciding to sort of acknowledge overall behavior issues but denying the specific charge was a calculated risk, and they seem to be employing two techniques – (1) With the mainstream media, Romney is apologizing without owning up to all the details, but (2) In the Twitter world and with the base, they’re feeding conspiracy theories on media bias. Jumping to media bias is always at the top of the crisis management 101 playbook in the GOP. And it usually helps in weathering a storm.

Mitt Romney learned that running for president means every aspect of your life is open to exception – even high school – as he spent a day apologizing for something he didn't own up. The Daily Rundown's Mitt Romney.

*** Who is Mitt Romney: But this story exposed a bigger problem for Romney. The first thing anyone running for office has to do is own their own narrative; they need to define themselves before the other side does it for them. And the bigger issue here is that the story brings to light how Romney – despite running for president for five years – is still not completely defined; his narrative is still being formed. The question of, “Who is Mitt Romney,” is still out there. Just because you have high name ID, doesn’t mean people know who you are. It’s the great mistake that John Kerry made in 2004. When you first start running as a presidential candidate, you’re usually a two-dimensional figure. By the general election, you’re 3D; you’re fully formed. Romney’s STILL not yet fully formed despite fact that he’s run for president for so long. The story’s a reminder of how easily others are trying to fill in the blanks. Which begs the question: why is Romney still not fully-formed in the minds of the public?  

*** Romney abandoned two planks of his biography: It all goes back to that Romney has not RUN on a clear, defined biography. Sure, he talks about family and business, but he doesn’t run on his biography, his personal story, the way Obama and McCain did – both of whom had compelling narratives. Romney has compelling narratives too, but he’s avoiding them. There were three narratives you could see him using: (1) The successful businessman, (2) A competent governor; and (3) A man of faith. He chose not to focus too strongly on his record as governor or man of faith for what look like political reasons in a primary. On faith, it’s always been a double-edged sword. You continue to hear that the more he grounded himself in his faith, the more it made him the man he is character-wise (that is revealed in the Washington Post story for instance) – but nobody talks about it any further. It’s a calculation that all members of religious minorities make and have made in the past. But what it’s done is made him overly cautious. And it only feeds into the fact that he’s still more of a distant 2-D figure; as one person remarked to us, he’s a postcard. 

*** Best case, worst case scenarios: The BEST case for Romney on this Washington Post story is that it establishes him as someone who went to prep school – not a regular high school – not only is he a man of privilege but he was a boy of privilege, too. We know the worst case. The middle case is it can make people think back to high school, and say, oh, he was THAT kid? The point is, at a bare minimum, this Washington Post story establishes Romney as a child of privilege and feeds the narrative Democrats are trying to build that he’s a man of privilege only looking out for folks like him. And while Romney will survive this story: plenty of folks believe high school is simply not fair game, it’s another paint brush stroke on the unfinished portrait of Romney.

*** Times have changed: The other part of the story is -- what was reluctantly acceptable behavior in high school 30, 40, 50 years is not today – a point the New York Times makes. An incident like the one highlighted in the lede of the story would likely make news today and would probably get you kicked out. Society’s morality of this kind of behavior, with all the attention on bullying, has changed. Romney’s apology for his overall behavior was missing some empathy, particularly for this kind of behavior. He could have condemned behavior like that without owning it. At the end of the day, though, this was 50 years ago. It’s a day-and-a-half story, doesn’t define this election or change much likely, especially since the contours are still going to be shaped by the economy. But it is a reminder that the campaign has a lot more work to do to fill out and answer the question, “Who is Mitt Romney?” -- beyond issues and ideology; it’s who is this guy to his core. You could see Restore Our Future trying with the Saved ad about Romney’s efforts to rescue a kidnapped daughter of a co-worked. But the ad itself is five years old; they didn’t even bother updating the interviews. By the way, remember that Obama had to answer questions about his high-school drug use in 2008: “The American people are pretty clear about who I am,” he said then. “I wrote a book about it. That’s the only reason these issues are coming up. It has to do with when I was a teenager, and I think they recognize that 30 years later as a father of two and a husband and a United States Senator that I’m prepared to lead the country.”

*** Just answer the question: Another item that flew under the radar was Romney in Colorado, chiding a local reporter – in a one-on-one interview -- after she asked questions about gay marriage, whether children of illegal immigrants should get in-state tuition, and medical marijuana – all hot-button issues in Colorado. “Aren’t there issues of significance that you’d like to talk about?” Romney asked. The reporter responded: “This is a significant issue in Colorado.” Here’s what’s perplexing. It doesn’t make sense to chide a local reporter, because the whole point of doing local press is to get positive local coverage. Sure, Romney’s smart to want to always pivot back to the economy; but he appeared to look annoyed while doing it; that’s fine when you are appealing to a base voter who already hates the media; but swing voters? Suburban women in Colorado? And what did the local station highlight: that Romney “got flustered,” and the headline on their web print story: “Romney Loses Cool When Questioned About Marijuana, Gay Marriage.” By the way, AP reports today that medical marijuana supporters are out with their first ads today in Colorado. It will be on the ballot there this fall.

*** White House tries to re-write recent history: It’s pretty clear the White House doesn’t want the first draft of history on President Obama and gay marriage to be Joe Biden forced him to do it. There are a lot of “record-correcting” anecdotes now starting to leak out about how Biden apologized for jumping the gun and that, oh, they were fully prepared to make this announcement themselves before the election, that the whole point of scheduling time on “The View” was when he was going to do it. The White House appears to be more worried about the president looking like a waffler – they’re still trying to fix that, and it can come across as ham-handed.

*** First Bailout ads from Obama: We asked if the Obama campaign would come out with another positive ad ever again after its launch ad – and it has, three more, in fact, including their first ones on the auto bailout. The most powerful of the three, however, highlights an auto worker, who the ad claims, lost his job and got it back because of the bailout. The Weekly Standard, though, writes “The ad itself seems to be misleading. It is not because of Obama's auto bailout that Slagle has a job. In fact, Slagle has been employed with Johnson Controls since February 2006, according to his own Facebook page." The campaign didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting a response.

*** Romney’s path to 270 – a focus on the industrial Midwest: Romney’s path to 270 is narrower than President Obama’s, we’ve noted before. The Romney folks made the rounds yesterday chatting with various DC reporters about their paths. We learned they believe this election is about the industrial Midwest, in large part – about doing well in places like Ohio and Iowa, and making inroad in Wisconsin and Michigan. If Romney sweeps the key Southern states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, he has to win one of those Midwest states. If he loses one of those Southern states, he has to win more of those. The West is trickier; it’s clear they don’t want to have to be relying on the West, though, Nevada, where the president is today is their BEST shot of the swing states there. Nevada still has the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country.

*** On the trail: President Obama travels from Los Angeles to Reno, NV where he will meet with a local family and call on Congress “to act on create jobs and help restore middle class security.” … Romney attends an event in Charlotte, N.C., at a pipe and foundry company.

Countdown to Wisconsin recall election: 25
Countdown to Arizona 8 (Giffords seat) special election: 32
Countdown to Utah Senate primary: 46 days
Countdown to Election Day: 179 days 

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