Shhh: Reporters Can’t Talk About The Secret, Fun Mitt Romney

Romney laughs as he hands out beef jerky to the press on his campaign plane. Evan Vucci / AP

DENVER, Colo. — Mitt Romney cheerfully meandered back past the blue divider curtain on his campaign jet last Friday carrying a large bag of beef jerky. He doled out the giant hunks of dried meat to reporters one by one, engaging in the kind of innuendo-laced banter common in the back of the plane but widely thought to be absent from the front. At one point, a journalist who received a smaller piece of jerky complained that he had “jerky envy,” prompting an outburst of laughter from the candidate.

The exchange raised more than a few eyebrows when it hit Twitter and the blogosphere: Funny, loose, a little racy — who was this guy?

But for Romney’s traveling press corps, the jerky party was just the latest in a series of similar casual encounters with the candidate — most of which are joined by reporters on the condition that they are “off the record,” meaning nothing the candidate does or says can be reported.

Eager for access to the famously reserved candidate, reporters have generally agreed to the campaign’s terms for these “OTRs,” which have long been common practice on presidential campaigns. But the resulting interactions — rare, unfettered conversations with an unusually candid Romney — have left many of the traveling campaign reporters frustrated that they’re unable capture a side of the candidate that he keeps hidden from public view.

“The OTRs are annoying,” said one reporter who covers Romney. “I mean, I’m glad we do them, but it’s like, we can’t show a side of him that exists.”

Reporters pointed to an off-the-record briefing Romney did the day before his speech at the Republican National Convention as a prime example. (This reporter wasn’t present, and so is not bound by the off-the-record terms. Other members of the press agreed to speak broadly about their impressions on the condition that they not be named, and would not discuss the substance of what the candidate said.)

With the cameras off and the journalists’ notepads a safe distance from their pens, Romney candidly answered questions about his speech preparation, the impact his father’s career had on him, and his Massachusetts gubernatorial record. He seemed, reporters said later, like a different person: funnier, more intellectually honest, comfortably dorky, and even prone to introspection.

One senior campaign adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss these off-the-record situations, said that if Romney behaves differently behind the scenes, it’s partly because the dynamic with the press is altered.

“Reporters also conduct themselves somewhat differently in off the record settings,” the adviser said. “They are more like a dinner conversation and they are equally as expansive as to what their questions are getting at. There’s a natural tension that exists with any on the record conversation. It’s more of a competition. We try to drive a message and the press scrutinizes it endlessly.”

But the yawning gap between Romney’s on-the-record and off-the-record personas also provides an explanation for why the candidate always seems so uncomfortable in public. Indeed, no one knows better than the candidate’s traveling press corps that as soon as the red light blinks on, Romney transforms into a halting, hyper-cautious talking-point-dispenser whose defining rhetorical characteristic is an ongoing preoccupation with self-censorship.

Like a Mormon Larry David, Romney seems acutely aware of how his publicly spoken words can be misinterpreted — and determined to set the record straight, often in real time.

Last March, for example, while speaking to a group of Louisianans about Dodd-Frank, Romney caught himself accidentally using the word “y’all” — a colloquialism that had drawn charges of pandering when he employed it in Alabama a couple weeks earlier.

“You don’t think it affects y’all on a —,” he said, before pausing and then correcting himself. “You all on a direct basis.”

Then, looking down at the podium for a moment, Romney decided to clarify: “I mean ‘you all.’ I’m not trying to pretend like I’m from Louisiana.”

More recently, Romney demonstrated his sensitivity to being taken out of context during a causal, but on-the-record, trip to the back of the campaign plane to wish New York Times reporter Ashley Parker a happy birthday. When Parker requested that he answer a policy question as her birthday gift, Romney laughingly exclaimed, “Oh, not a prayer!”

Then, he hastily acknowledged how the response could be interpreted: “That’s going to be a DNC ad.”

One Romney adviser acknowledged this habit, and said it helps explain why the candidate is so much less easy-going in public. But he added that Romney has good reason to be cautious, and accused some in the media of seizing on the even the most inconsequential misstatements to cast him as weird, out of touch, or otherwise awkward.

“But I think that’s true of a lot of guys that become candidates,” said the adviser. “You’re used to talking to people you work with in business or whatever… and suddenly everything you say is being scrutinized.”

He added, “I think he’s very careful.”

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Chris Christie Calls For Special Senate Election In October

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for a special election to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who passed away Monday, to take place just three weeks before the general election this fall.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Christie announced that a primary would take place on Tuesday, Aug. 13, leaving candidates like Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Frank Pallone just 70 days to prepare. The general election will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 16, Christie said.

Although there was speculation Christie would try to delay the election until November 2014 — allowing an interim Republican appointee to fill Lautenberg’s seat for a full 18 months — the governor pursued an entirely different path, scheduling a special election this October.

“I want to have an elected senator as soon as possible,” said Christie, adding that he was willingly forgoing the “political advantage that would come to me” from a long-term appointee in Washington.

Christie said he was still considering who he would appoint to that role to serve until October, but did say he would choose a member of his own party.

Having the special election in October — as opposed to this November, when Christie will be on the ballot for his own reelection — will cost the state up to $12 million, according to early estimates.

The decision will likely draw fire from members of both parties inside the state: Democratic critics say Christie didn’t want the special election held on the same date as the general New Jersey election so that his name could stay at the top of the ballot; while Republicans may take issue with the spending the additional election will cost the state.

In a statement released shortly after the press conference, New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Wisniewski cast the October election as a “blatantly political move.”

“Democrats believe an election should be held in a timely manner, however in what appears to be a blatantly political move, the governor would rather spend $12 million in taxpayer funds on a special election when a general election is scheduled for less than three weeks later,” said Wisniewski. “Chris Christie’s decision speaks more to his national political ambitions than his responsibility to the residents of New Jersey as governor.”

But Christie said that it would have been impossible to hold the senate election this November, “unless I delayed my decision for another 10 days,” he said. “That’s just irresponsible, and I wouldn’t think it’s right for the people of New Jersey.”

“The option to have it on the general is not an option,” he said.

As for the cost associated with the senate election, said Christie, “the state will be responsible for all the costs associated.”

“I dont know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don’t care,” Christie added.

The announcement sets the New Jersey senate race rolling more than a year in advance, and forces Booker, Pallone, and other interested candidates like Rep. Rush Holt, to put their campaigns into high-gear.

Booker, the most high-profile candidate vying to replace Lautenberg, had previously said he wouldn’t announce his senate campaign formally until after this year’s governor’s race.

Before leaving the room, Christie added to the reporters attending, “For all of you who are bored of the governor’s race, I have solved your problem.”

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The Plan To Take Down Cory Booker

Cory Booker may be a Democratic Party star; he may have a 40-point lead over rivals in the polls; he may have 1.4 million followers on Twitter and a name familiar to every voter up and down the Garden State and across much of the country — but the special election for U.S. Senate this fall isn’t his for the taking.

New Jersey Democrats involved in and following the race to fill the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg say the Newark mayor is the clear favorite, but that his opponents will work to expose a number of weak points in his narrative to take down the national political celebrity.

Since Gov. Chris Christie announced Tuesday afternoon that a special election would take place fall — with a primary race in August, and a general in October — candidates like Booker have been scrambling to put their campaigns into high-gear, and collect the 1,000 signatures required by Monday to get their names onto the primary ballot. Booker, along with Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt, has been circulating petitions for signatures. For now, only Holt has made his candidacy official; Booker will announce Saturday at an event in Newark, and Pallone is expected to launch his bid later this weekend, according to sources in both camps. (There is only one declared Republican candidate so far, Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota — but the primary, not the general, will likely determine New Jersey’s next senator.)

New Jersey political insiders said Democratic competitors will seize on the narratives that have persisted around Booker for years — that he spends too much time outside of New Jersey; that he is more popular outside the state than inside; that his record in Newark can’t hold up to scrutiny — and that they play up their longstanding relationships with the state party apparatus, which Booker has been known to challenge.

Before Lautenberg’s death — when the race to fill his seat was still slated for November 2014 — polling showed Booker led the two congressman in a potential Democratic primary by a hefty margin: with 50 percent of respondents voting for Booker; seven percent for Holt; and just four percent for Pallone.

Booker, poll numbers aside, is far from untouchable — particularly in New Jersey, where, as one state operative observed, “nothing is inevitable.” Below are four of the central strategies in the campaign to take down Booker, as described to BuzzFeed by campaign strategists, political observers, party officials, and Democratic operatives in New Jersey.

Cast him as a party outsider

Booker first announced he would run for Lautenberg’s senate seat last December, two months before Lautenberg announced that he would retire at the end of his fifth term.

New Jersey Democrats didn’t like that math: Booker couldn’t have waited for Lautenberg to bow out before saying he wanted to run for senate? The move roiled Lautenberg loyalists, and Lautenberg himself, compounding Democrats’ frustration that Booker had not run for governor. He had been, it was widely felt, the only candidate who could have given Christie a run for his money in 2013.

“His announcement was viewed as stepping on Lautenberg’s toes without bringing the country and state party into the fold,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, and a close observer of state politics.

“It was viewed as being a little politically expedient and premature, but I don’t know that the Lautenberg resentment is going to carry over,” Harrison said, adding that what was more worrisome for Booker is the “disappointment Democrats felt when he didn’t challenge Christie.”

In a state where county party “bosses” have far-reaching political sway, Booker is already behind in fostering relationships with state party leaders, and the New Jersey Democratic establishment. He’s viewed by many as the antithesis to a team player.

In a typical primary election, county power brokers have the power to award a candidate the “party line,” the most favorable position on a primary ballot. In the case of the 2012 election, for example, candidates on the party line would have appeared beneath President Obama and incumbent Sen. Bob Menendez. But in the senate race this fall, the influential party line will hold less sway, as only special election candidates will appear on the August primary ballot.

“The line doesn’t matter as much this time, though even if you’re endorsed on the county line, you have a stamp of approval,” said a state Democratic operative with ties to the race.

One New Jersey Democratic strategist involved in the special election race said that not many state leaders “are hearing directly from [Booker]; they’re hearing from his staff, but not him.”

“His biggest obstacle is that he has not developed the county-level political connections that are really important in New Jersey politics,” said Harrison. “Pallone has strong connections in the county organizations, and if he’s able to use his influence to get endorsed by the county chairs, that carries some measure of weight in a typical primary.”

Pallone has “consistently tried to keep a solid relationship with the powers that be within the state party,” Harrison added.

Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political science professor and longtime observer of New Jersey politics, said those relationships could help Pallone quite a bit this fall. “It matters. Those organizations have some muscle to them,” he said, but added, “Does it mean that you win if you’ve got it? No.”

State intra-party politics haven’t held Booker back in the past, either: He built his political career on challenging incumbents, first in an improbable city council win against four-term incumbent George Branch in 1998; and again in 2002, when he tried and failed to unseat Sharpe James, a corrupt mayor who held Newark city hall for two decades, before Booker finally beat him four years later.

Play up the self-promoting “absentee mayor” caricature

Ahead of his senate run, Booker’s campaign office released a financial disclosure form, the filing required of candidates running for senate. But his office also sent reporters four other documents detailing Booker’s earnings from paid speeches at colleges, corporations, and non-profits across 32 states over the past five years. The speeches — he has given 90 in total since 2008 — earned Booker $1.3 million, about three quarters of which he gave to charity, according to his office.

The document dump, not required by any campaign finance regulations, appeared to address the persistent line of attack on Booker: that he spends too much time outside of Newark engaging in activities that amount to nothing more than self-promotion. The paid speeches, the interviews on cable news shows, the technology conferences — Booker’s level of national prominence can seem improbable for a city mayor.

Last summer, a Star-Ledger review of 18 months worth of public documents and news reporters found that Booker had spent over 21 percent of his time out of town. The article dubbed him the “absentee mayor.”

It’s a title that could hang over Booker this fall if a rival like Pallone or Holt tries to push the issue to the fore of the campaign.

“The big thing will be hitting him on the ‘absentee mayor’ stuff,” said a Democratic operative involved in the race. “He’s gotten a lot of business into the city by going around the country being a cheerleader for Newark, but there’s a way to make it a negative too.”

“Booker’s biggest thing is that he’s a rock star. People know him because he’s on Bill Maher’s show, and he tweets, but those people aren’t necessarily New Jersey Democratic voters who will come out in a primary in August,” the operative added, noting that 70 percent of Booker’s first-quarter senate contributions came from outside the state, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer review of Federal Election Committee reports.

If Pallone and Holt want to move the polls back in their direction, said Muzzio, they’ll have to go on the offensive, and fast. “Clearly, those attacks will be the test,” he said. “You can go positive, but you’ve got to go negative if you want to take Booker down. You’ve got to say, ‘This is a show-horse. Not a work-horse.’”

Earlier this year, when Lautenberg was waging cold war over the way Booker had laid claim to his senate seat, the show-horse critique was one he turned to on more than one occasion. In a speech at a New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington, Lautenberg noted that Booker had skipped the event. “I’m disappointed that Cory Booker couldn’t be here tonight. I’d think that spending time out of the city was one of his favorite activities,” he said. “Perhaps we were too close to Newark.”

Point to Booker’s failures in Newark

When The New York Times took a hard look at his seven-year record as mayor of Newark, Booker called the piece “just frustrating as heck.”

Although Booker suggested at the time that the article had misrepresented his management of Newark city hall — he and his staff even crafted a rebuttal to send to another news outlet — it certainly won’t be the last time Booker has to defend his performance as mayor.

The city, New Jersey’s largest, has shown marked improvement in areas over the last seven years: population has increased for the first time in six decades, and crime has decreased broadly, with a 17 percent decrease in the homicide rate since Booker took office in 2006.

But with a significant spike in violence from 2011 to 2012, Newark still ranks 20th, behind Nashville and Philadelphia, on last year’s Federal Bureau of Investigation list of America’s most dangerous cities. Earlier in his tenure, Booker also laid off more than 600 public workers, and 163 police officers, an unpopular decision which he still remembers as “painful.” (Booker, though, announced earlier this year that he would hire back 50 officers.)

According to a poll published in the Star-Ledger earlier this year, Booker is well liked within his city: Seventy percent of likely Newark voters have a favorable opinion of him, and 65 percent approve of his performance as mayor.

But one a strategist connected to an opposing campaign said one weak spot in Booker’s campaign would be “the fact that his record in Newark is even debatable,” the source said. “You look at Pallone and Holt and you see a proven record in Washington, not to mention a voting record.”

As mayor of a city, Booker has managerial experience that very well may appeal to voters, but Pallone and Holt have both voted on a range of economic, social, and foreign issues on the floor of the House, providing voters a clear sense of where both candidates stand on national policy.

Rival candidates could also seize on Booker’s strained relationship with state teachers unions, as well as his support for charter schools, which are championed by the same hedge fund and Wall Street communities that have financed Booker for years.

“That’s what makes us least comfortable,” said Steve Phillips, a progressive fundraiser whose political action committee has vowed to raise $1 to $2 million for Booker. “I understand the complexities of trying to do something for lower-income kids in a political bureaucracy, but if I could wave my magic wand, I wouldn’t want him as close to the hedge fund folks as he is.”

Take advantage of the shorter race

The other factor at play in this race is time, state operatives say. When the clock gets moved forward by more than a year — the primary for the race that should have been held in 2014 is now just 66 days away — even the presumed leaders of the pack find themselves scrambling.

“None of the candidates have established a real coherent message yet, because they didn’t expect to thrown into this,” said Muzzio. “There is no organization, and there are a lot of unknowns.”

Booker was just this spring beginning to put the infrastructure in place for his campaign. In March, he hired a communications director, Kevin Griffis; and in April, he brought in his finance director, Lauren Dikis. The campaign staff remains a small operation — Griffis and Dikis are joined by a political director, and finance staffers, but not many others. The campaign will have to accelerate the hiring process in the coming days and weeks, aides say.

The mayor will also have to speed up his fundraising efforts. According to FEC filings, he has $1.6 million in cash on hand, as of March 31, compared to Pallone’s $3.7 million. Holt, meanwhile, has just $790,000. The most recent records available, though, do not include a fundraising swing Booker took through California, where he headlined a private Los Angeles reception, where major motion-picture producer Jerry Weintraub hosted and Democratic kingmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg was a big-name attendee.

But operatives inside the state say both Pallone and Holt can rake in the cash, too — and may be able to compete with Booker now that time is more limited.

Holt, who has had to run much more competitive reelection races than Pallone, may better adapt to the competitive field of the special election. The former physicist’s first successful race in 1998 was not one many believed he could win — he did, but by just under three percent of the vote. More recently, he held his seat in 2010 in a particularly tough race against Republican Scott Sipprelle, an independently wealth candidate who financed much of his own campaign.

“Holt is the only one who has won a race that no one said he could win,” said one state Democratic strategist. “Pallone has never had a tough race. There’s a difference between throwing elbows and kicking someone in the nuts, and Holt knows how to do that. We’ll see if Pallone does,” the source said.

With just weeks until the primary, elbows will be flying earlier, and candidates will be angling to get on the air in the expensive New York City and Philadelphia media markets — New Jersey doesn’t have its own — as soon as they can afford it. Whether Pallone or Holt can throw enough elbows to edge Booker out in just under 70 days remains an open question.

But in a sprint to the finish, “it’s all possible,” said Muzzio. “Booker can lose it. Holt and Pallone are substantial guys, and in a short race, any number of variables can come into play.”

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The Obama Campaign Also Hit John McCain On Offshore Bank Accounts

The DNC’s press kit making fun of McCain’s Bermuda tax haven trip.

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IRS Scandal Could Blunt Potency Of Campaign Finance Reform

NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 04: U.S. Sen. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The widening scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups during the 2012 election is not only threatening to derail Obama’s short-term agenda, but it could also take a key fundraising tool off the table for Democrats in the 2014 race: campaign finance reform.

Democrats in the Senate had planned on once again pushing for a new round of stricter campaign finance reporting reforms, ostensibly aimed at limiting the impacts of SuperPacs on campaigns.

If the prospects of passage in the Senate were dim, now Democrats say it’s all but certain legislation won’t pass.

“I don’t think Republicans have any fresh incentive to revisit this,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide acknowledged.

And that could be bad news for Democrats, who have used reform as an effective tool for revving up their base and, perhaps ironically, raising money.

In many ways, campaign finance reform is the “judicial activism” of the left: an issue that rarely sees any actual movement in Congress or the executive branch but which is a standard part of Democratic stump speeches and fundraising pitches.

Denunciations of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which unleashed Super PACS like Crossroads GPS onto the political scene, are common in Democratic rhetoric. But the ruling has had it’s upside for Democrats: in addition to creating primary problems for Senate Republicans, it’s created a convenient “evil corporate interest” straw man for the party to attack.

And those arguments are popular not only with the party’s base but also with donors.

Officially, Democrats insist the scandal, in which IRS workers specifically targeted groups with “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their names for extensive review, should give reform efforts a shot in the arm.

“There needs to be more clarity in the law regarding the activities of tax exempt organizations along with greater disclosure and transparency. We must overturn Citizens United, which has exacerbated the challenges posed by some of these so-called ‘social welfare’ organizations,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Monday.

“And we must take appropriate action, without any delay or hesitation, to ensure that the IRS remains an impartial agency for America’s taxpayers and our nation’s families and businesses,” she added.

But privately, Democrats acknowledged it will ultimately hurt their ability to move any sort of legislation.

In fact, the scandal has scuttled a long planned hearing into the activities of so-called 501©4 organizations like Crossroads.

“We had tentatively planned a hearing on that issue for June. After Friday’s announcement that the IRS, to the extent it has been enforcing the law, may have done so in ways that singled out some groups for special scrutiny, we have determined that the subcommittee should investigate that additional issue as well,” Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain, the chair and ranking member of a key Senate subcommittee, announced Monday.

“As a result, we have decided to delay our hearing in order to examine this issue carefully. We will continue to work on a bipartisan basis to ensure the integrity of our political process and of enforcement efforts,” the two lawmakers explained.

Still, the aide argued that Democrats could turn lemons into lemonade. “There is no standard for judging when a nonprofit … oversteps its bounds. That’s one thing that could be proposed as a reform,” the aide explained.

Indeed, Sen. Charles Schumer, argued in a statement that new guidelines need to be established to avoid future problems.

“If the IRS showed political bias in scrutinizing these nonprofit groups, heads should roll at the agency. Congress should fully investigate this potential abuse of power and specific reforms must be adopted to prevent this from ever happening again. As we proposed last year, the IRS must adopt neutral, objective criteria for reviewing applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status and make them clear to the public and to groups that apply,” Schumer sdaid.

“As long as the IRS guidelines remain murky, the risk remains that the agency will enforce the law arbitrarily or, worse, based on political motives. And that is unacceptable,” he added.

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What Joe Biden Didn’t Call Romney Today

Vice President Joe Biden raised the level of the Obama Administration’s attacks on former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney today in Davenport, Iowa, delivering a speech on manufacturing at the PCT Engineered Systems that was intended largely to contrast this White House’s support for manufacturing with Mitt Romney’s alleged failings.

The most striking element of Biden’s approach, though, was what he didn’t say. Biden didn’t suggest that Romney had switched positions on the economic issue. He didn’t suggest he was insincere, a flip-flopper, or that he has “no core.”

In fact, Biden pivoted away from the attacks that had, to date, defined the Obama re-elect.

“Mitt Romney has been remarkably consistent, remarkably consistent — and I respectfully suggest, consistently wrong,” said Biden, after referring to Romney as a “good guy” if, perhaps, “out of touch.”

“We have a choice in our election between our philosophy, that says manufacturing is central to our economy, and their philosophy, which scoffs at it,” Biden said.

Some Democrats had warned that the downside of attacks on Romney as a man lacking principles is that they may make it difficult to scare independent voters with the specter of a Romney presidency. Biden’s approach is far more direct.

But it’s not yet clear whether this represents a broad shift, or just a split between the way they attack Romney personally and how they cast his economic policies.

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Michael Bloomberg Calls Bill De Blasio’s Campaign “Racist”

John Minchillo / AP

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called mayoral candidate Billde Blasio’s campaign “racist” in a New York magazine interview published Saturday.

Then there’s Bill de Blasio, who’s become the Democratic front-runner. He has in some ways been running a class-warfare campaign—
Class-warfare and racist.
I mean he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.

De Blasio responded to the comments at a campaign event Saturday afternoon, saying, “I’m exceedingly proud of my family … We all have proceeded as a family together.” He called Bloomberg’s remarks “very unfortunate and inappropriate” and said he hoped Bloomberg would “reconsider” what he said.

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White House Press Secretary In A Bind On Libya

1. 10/10: “I never said, I never said we don’t know if it’s terrorism.”

2. 9/14 in response question if it was a terrorist attack: “We don’t have and do not have concrete evidence to suggest this was not in reaction to the film.”

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