- Mitt Romney's blunders on the campaign trail have kept him from building momentum
- Off-the-cuff remarks have added to his image as out-of-touch elitist and flip-flopper
- Analyst: "The most dangerous thing in politics is to play into a pre-existing story line"
- Rick Santorum has also suffered recently from self-inflicted wounds
One step forward, one step back -- that seems to be Mitt Romney's signature dance in the Republican presidential race.
After receiving a boost from this week's primary wins in Arizona and Michigan, Romney made another blunder. Now he's cleaning up the mess when he could be building momentum.
Romney's gaffe over his position on a failed GOP-backed amendment that would roll back a White House policy on insurer-provided contraception is the latest in a series of miscues that have played into the political stereotype cast of him: a flip-flopper, not a true conservative and an elitist out of touch with most Americans.
His chief rival, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also has suffered recently from self-inflicted wounds. As he surged into the lead in national polls and in Romney's home state of Michigan, Santorum, who holds conservative positions on social issues but had been focusing on the economy and Romney's core values, suddenly shifted to the right, saying that President John F. Kennedy's landmark address on the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up" and that President Barack Obama was a "snob" for wanting Americans to go to college.
"The most dangerous thing in politics is to play into a pre-existing story line," said Ron Brownstein, a CNN contributor and editorial director of The National Journal. "When Dan Quayle misspelled 'potato,' it was a much bigger deal than if Al Gore had misspelled potato."
Quayle, vice president to President George H. W. Bush, was depicted as an intellectual lightweight because of a series of stumbles and inaccuracies in public statements. When he added an 'e' to the end of the word potato at an elementary school spelling bee, it affirmed the stereotype created around him.
"It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable,'' Quayle wrote in his 1994 memoir, "Standing Firm." "Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite.''
Sound bites of Romney's gaffes have ricocheted around the Web since the beginning of this election season. The off-the-cuff comments he's made on the campaign trail about wealth, some taken out of context, have added to his image of an elitist to whom most working-class Americans can't relate.
Romney, whose income was $42.7 million over the last two years, joked with unemployed workers in Florida in June that he, too, was also unemployed.
In January, he told a crowd of supporters he likes "being able to fire people" in a talk about insurance companies. He went on to say that if someone didn't provide adequate services, he liked to be able to find someone else who would. But critics took the first part of the quote and ran with it.
In a February interview, Romney told CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien that he is "not concerned about the very poor," citing the safety net in place by the American government and said that his primary focus is the middle class. But it was the first part of the sentence that critics pounced on as evidence of Romney's elitism, while conservatives said the safety net he talked about only encouraged a welfare state.
Last weekend, Romney made a campaign stop at the Daytona 500. Asked if he followed NASCAR racing, Romney told an Associated Press reporter maybe not as closely as the most ardent fans, "but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."
And at an event in Detroit, he tried to prove he was behind the American automotive industry by saying that he drove a Ford Mustang and a Chevrolet pickup and that his wife, Ann, "drives a couple of Cadillacs."
A campaign spokesman later clarified that Ann Romney owns two Cadillac SRXs and keeps one at each of the family's two homes. The 2012 SRX model sells goes for between $35,000 and $49,000.
The Democratic National Committee on Wednesday posted a two-minute video compilation of Romney's campaign mishaps and TV journalists asking, in the words of O'Brien, "whether he has trouble connecting with voters."
In a note accompanying the video, DNC national press secretary Melanie Roussell wrote these comments "are windows into the soul of a man running for (p)resident who cannot relate to the lives of average Americans. His out of touch positions and pandering to the right wing are causing him to pay dearly among independent, moderate and blue-collar voters who(m) Romney cannot afford to lose in the general election."
Romney admitted to reporters Tuesday in Michigan that the gaffes had hurt his campaign.
His comments on the Blunt amendment played into conservatives' reservations about his core values.
The amendment, tacked on to a highway spending bill by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, would have allowed any employer the right to opt out of requiring insurers to cover contraceptives. And it would have allowed them to opt out of any services required by the 2010 health care law. (By a mostly party-line vote of 51-48, a motion by Senate Democrats to table the amendment succeeded Thursday, effectively killing it.)
Asked about the amendment in an interview Tuesday with the Ohio News Network, Romney said that he opposed it.
Later that same day on radio's "The Howie Carr Show," Romney said he "misunderstood the question" and that he supported the bill.
"I simply misunderstood what he was talking about. I thought it was some Ohio legislation that, where employers were prevented from providing contraceptives so I talked about contraceptives and so forth. I really misunderstood the question," Romney said.
"Of course, Roy Blunt, who is my liaison to the Senate, is someone I support, and of course, I support that amendment. I clearly want to have religious exemption from 'Obama Care.' "
Blunt later said that he accepted Romney's explanation. But the incident couldn't have been a step forward with conservatives whose support the former Massachusetts governor must earn to win the Republican Party's nomination.