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May 4, 2012
Tuesday, President Obama scored a foreign policy success when he traveled to Afghanistan. Now he's being buffeted by the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. Meanwhile, Romney had been getting some attention for his critique that the president was politicizing the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. That is, until Obama went to Afghanistan, signed an international agreement and addressed the troops and the nation.
At this point in the presidential race, Romney faces the difficult task of outdoing an incumbent president.
Finding A News Hook
A president is often hostage to events he can't control — case-in-point may be the unfolding drama of Chen in China. Wednesday, Romney tried to take advantage of this new foreign policy controversy. Campaigning in the swing state of Virginia, he hedged his remarks but still ripped into the president for the handling of Chen.
"According to these reports — if they're accurate — that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family," Romney said, "if these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom, and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration."
Romney's comment on Chen's case, which is still unfolding, fits into his campaign pledge to get tougher on China. GOP strategist Ed Rogers says this is a good example of the choices a challenger has to make.
"It's a challenge to be creative and come up with a news hook that the press will buy into — every day," Roger says. "Every day, there's news coverage from now on about Romney. He either makes it or somebody makes it up for him. It's going to be difficult. It's the hardest part of this challenge really."
How Do You Beat Air Force One?
Romney learned just how hard it was to run against an incumbent president as Obama controlled the story of the bin laden anniversary.
"The truth is that no challenger or his campaign can ever match the size and grandeur and spectacle and influence of a sitting president," says Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. "It's simply impossible to."
Jordan has been on the receiving end of this dynamic, when he worked for John Kerry in 2004. He says Obama is doing a good job of using all the tools at his disposal.
"His ability to create visuals, to create a story, and to set the policy and political agenda is just incomparable. There's nothing Romney can do about it," Jordan says.
While the commander in chief was jetting off on Air Force One to a dramatic middle-of-the-night visit to Afghanistan, Romney was complaining that Obama was politicizing the bin Laden anniversary and delivering pizza to a fire station at ground zero with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Rogers gives the Romney camp "no better than a C+" for how they responded to the Obama campaign's suggestion that Romney may not have sanctioned a similar raid to get bin Laden.
"They didn't have a former uniformed senior general to go out and talk about that on Romney's behalf. They used campaign hands, they used talking points," he says.
A Message That Resonates
Many Republicans think part of the answer for Romney is to broaden his message — to do more than just remind voters that they aren't better off than they were four years ago.
"I don't think that's going to be enough," says Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
He says Romney is going to have to find some way to overcome the appearance that he's indifferent to the concerns of average Americans.
"He's going to have to do that by embracing some kind of agenda for social mobility and opportunity, and to make a sophisticated argument that conservative and free-market ideas actually achieve this," Gerson says. "It's going to require some serous policy work. He's going to have to identify himself as ... not just the alternative to three years of failed economic policy, but as embodying some kind of economic hope."
Over the next several months, finding an agenda beyond a critique of the president will be one of Romney's main challenges. In the meantime, he'll have to decide how to wants to insert himself into the news of the day — whether it's a Chinese activist or a monthly jobs report.