Despite months of primary election speeches and events, the Romney campaign is still working out the kinks of their stagecraft as they transition to the general election.
CHARLOTTE, NC — Presidential campaign events are the ultimate in political stagecraft. Advance teams make sure that everything is carefully planned, from the choice of the location to the makeup of the audience to where TV cameras are placed to who introduces the speaker.
Mitt Romney’s campaign is still getting up to speed, I’d say.
Yesterday Romney delivered a speech on the rooftop of a building that is a long stone toss from the Bank of America Stadium, where President Barack Obama will speak at the Democratic National Convention in September. Romney’s campaign called it a “prebuttal” — an opportunity for the likely Republican presidential nominee to frame the general election on the turf of the Democratic candidate. Romney will deliver a similar speech in Ohio today.
In theory, it was a good idea. In practice, it was labored.
Let’s count the ways the event was challenged.
1. The speech was scheduled outside. Even in the best of circumstances, an outside speech is tricky. Rain and wind can wreak havoc. Sunlight can produce a glare. A distant backdrop beyond a speaker can make it difficult for audience members and TV cameras to focus.
Sure enough, it rained Wednesday, so the speech was moved inside. But then the outside light beaming in the windows threatened to envelop Romney in backlight. So the advance crew put up a huge American flag. A flag is never a bad move at a campaign event, except in this case it meant the view of the stadium was blocked. Had the event been planned inside from the get-go, the framing of Romney would have been more effective.
2. Romney was not introduced. Before yesterday I had never been to a presidential campaign event in which a candidate entered without an introduction. But on this day, Romney appeared with almost no warning from behind a curtain at side stage. There was no introduction from a local politician, no firing up of the audience, no voice-of-God from offstage booming “Please welcome the next president of the United States…” Nothing. Nada. Romney just appeared, shook a few hands, and stepped to the podium.
I called a person who has done advance work on presidential campaigns and he said he could not recall an event in which the starring candidate was not introduced. Had that occurred at an event for which he was responsible, this person said, he would have been called on the carpet by the campaign headquarters.
3. Romney spoke earlier than scheduled. Candidates are often late to events, sometimes to the chagrin of the press and supporters. But as long as the tardiness is within reason, that’s far less strategically damaging than being early. When you’re early, the news media are not ready for you, and if they planned to go live to your speech, that is a huge problem.
Romney’s speech was billed to the press as a 3:40 pm start, timed to be delivered not long after Obama finished a significant economic address in Ohio. The location of the address plus the timing of it meant that this was a news media-focused address: the primary audiences were across the nation, not locals.
Romney began speaking 12 minutes earlier than scheduled. The lack of an introduction plus his early arrival caught the press corps flat footed. They are used to perking up when introductions begin and the scheduled start time is at hand. Many of the TV folks were not at their cameras and had to hustle over. Romney finished speaking at 3:43, three minutes after he was supposed to begin. Not good.
4. Some protestors slipped in. As campaign events go, this one was intimate– 175 people in the audience, tops. At open-call public events in which thousands attend, campaigns cannot control who shows up; as a result, hecklers or protestors are always a possibility. But less than 200 is practically a dinner party for a presidential campaign. And that’s why I was stunned that four protestors made it in.
The four were members of El Cambio, a Latino organization committed to supporting immigrant and minority rights. I happen to talk to one, Moises Serrano, 22, beforehand. He and three others confronted Romney loudly and began chanting in Spanish something that was immediately matched in vocality by Romney supporters. An intense minute ensued until the police escorted out Serrano and company. From a stagecraft perspective, four protestors should not have made it into an event that could easily have been carefully screened.
To be clear, none of these elements made the event a disaster. This was not Michael Dukakis in a tank or John McCain in front of a green screen. But these bumps on Wednesday do point to a Romney campaign that is still learning how to stage events for national audiences, rather than localized ones in Republican primary states.