A tale of two side-issues.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney takes the stage at a campaign rally in Reno, Nevada October 24, 2012.
Image by Brian Snyder / Reuters
CINCINNATI, Ohio — Aides to Mitt Romney are demanding that Benghazi take on a greater focus in the final 12 days of the campaign, even as their candidate remains silent on the fallout from the attacks.
On Wednesday, leaked emails sent during the September 11th attack again sparked criticism of the Obama administration for blaming the attack on a video, when early social media clues pointed to a terror attack. But publicly, Romney didn't talk about them — or Libya at all — in campaign events in Reno, Nev. and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Indeed, in an unusual display of message discipline by the Romney campaign, he is focused solely on driving a message of economic contrast and avoiding discussion of the attack. The candidate himself is beginning to turn to his core closing argument — beginning with a speech in Ames, Iowa tomorrow — that is nearly entirely focused on the economy.
But behind the scenes, aides are bristling at the media, which has been pressing Romney on his endorsement of Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who opposes abortion in the case of rape.
"Why are we talking something some Senate candidate said, when the President of the United States LIED to the American people and said it was about a video?" one Romney aide emailed to BuzzFeed late Wednesday.
"Why aren't you all writing about Benghazi?" asked another.
The difference between the coverage of the two issues — the new emails don't show that Obama "lied" but do add to the case that the Administration should have seen a terror link earlier — has very much to do with the campaigns' own choices. While Romney has personally stayed away from the Libya issues, Obama's has used his own words and tweets to focus on Mourdock.
Romney's aides say the decision to avoid Benghazi is two-fold — swing voters don't care about foreign policy; and they got burned on Libya last time.
Romney's bungled town hall debate performance and response in the immediate aftermath of the consulate attack have left him wary of reengaging on the subject. In the final debate, faced with the inevitable question on Libya, Romney broadened the subject to include the larger issues created by the Arab Spring, choosing to level modest criticism at Obama and none at all on the timeline of the response to the attack.
"We're going to keep talking about the issues that matter to voters — the economy, and job creation," said the first aide, when pressed on why, if Libya is so bad for Obama, is Romney not engaging him on it.
On Mourdock, meanwhile, Romney finds himself caught between undoing some of his gains among women and alienating a base intent on retaking the Senate. Aides believe the best way out is to hunker down on their economic message and wait for the news cycle to pass.
But the disparity — Romney on defense over comments by a near stranger in Indiana, while Obama has avoided some of the heat from the latest Benghazi leaks — mark a pair of bets about the shape of the presidential campaign, and the value of a big picture focus versus an opportunistic attack.