BOSTON, Mass. — After a weekend of touring America's culture war battlegrounds — rhetorically and literally — Mitt Romney's campaign is rejecting the perception that it has shifted its focus from economic to social issues in the home stretch of the race.
In the past 72 hours, Romney has endorsed the controversial conservative Iowa Congressman Steve King, appeared onstage with televangelist Pat Robertson, debuted a revamped stump speech with warnings of encroaching secularism at its center, and devoted substantial time to a hot dog-heavy photo-op at a NASCAR race.
The weekend also featured several statements from the Obama campaign accusing Romney of joining the ranks of the GOP's socially "extreme" foot soldiers — a narrative senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom strongly rejected.
"President Obama is desperate to run a 'change the subject' campaign," Fehrnstrom told BuzzFeed. "The subject has been the economy, is the economy, and will be the economy. Mitt Romney doesn't want to change the subject, he wants to change the economy and that's what he's going to do as president."
But if the campaign was hoping to train the national media's attention on Friday's unexpectedly weak jobs report, it provided a (broken-down) planeload of distractions.
The first detour from economic messaging came Friday afternoon, when Romney appeared in a packed college gymnasium alongside Rep. King. There, in the heart of Iowa's most conservative county, King sought to assure the largely Evangelical crowd that Romney was one of them.
"Don't doubt this man's faith," King said. "Don't doubt his conviction. Do not doubt his patriotism or his faith, and his love for Jesus Christ, our Savior."
When Romney took the stage, he returned the favor by pausing in the middle of his speech to offer a full-throated endorsement for King, who's facing a potentially tight race in a newly-created district.
"I'm looking here at Steve King," Romney said. "He needs to be your Congressman again. I want him as my partner in Washington!"
The crowd erupted — as did Twitter, with liberals immediately reviving some of King's most potent gaffes, which included questioning whether women could get pregnant from rape and comparing immigrants to dogs. The Obama campaign also got in on the action, with spokeswoman Lis Smith accusing Romney of "pandering to the most extreme voices in his party."
Adviser Kevin Madden downplayed the endorsement to reporters, saying King has been supportive of Romney and appeared at events with the candidate before. But they were apparently undeterred by Democrats' criticism, because the next day, in Virginia Beach, Romney got on stage with Robertson, a venerable figure on the religious right, but also the author of a long series of inflammatory statements.
With the Evangelical leader perched in a chair behind him, Romney unveiled a new version of his stump speech, reworked to include a riff on the pledge of allegiance — which he spontaneously led the crowd in reciting — as well as a fresh applause line.
"The pledge says 'under God,'" Romney declared to a hangar full of flag-waving partisans in rural southern Virginia. "I will not take God out of the name of our platform, I will not take God off our coins, and I will not take God out of my heart!"
The press fixated on the candidate's apparent implication that Democrats were working to remove the national motto, "In God we trust," from the national currency. Democrats accused the candidate of being disingenuous — no such proposal has been made — while defenders pointed out Romney has made similar references in the past. But even setting aside the curious "coin" line, Romney's warning against the spread of secularism, and his pledge to defend against it, was one of the revamped speech's unifying themes.
It has also been conservative rallying cry in the culture wars since at least the 1970's, and, as Romney learned, it still packs a punch in the right crowd. In Virginia, the line drew an uproarious reaction from the audience, and played even better than his old favorite applause line (and one that was tied to economic issues): "You did build that."
The event prompted the Obama campaign to accuse Romney of extremism for the second time in 24 hours. Spokeswoman Smith, always quick on the draw, blasted out a statement saying, "It's disappointing to see Mitt Romney try to throw a Hail Mary by launching extreme and untrue attacks against the President and associating with some of the most strident and divisive voices in the Republican Party."
But while Chicago was officially "disappointed," off the record it was baffled. One Obama campaign aide, suggesting Romney was trying harder to win the room than the election, wondered to BuzzFeed, "What's the strategy he's going with here? Makes zero sense."
Pollsters have suggested that, in this election, there are comparatively few truly undecided swing state voters, and that the key to victory for each candidate may be to turn out his respective base. What's more, as demographic shifts in the U.S. are turning white, male, working-class voters (a traditionally Republican constituency) into an increasingly small portion of the electorate, Romney is faced with the task of winning — and rallying — more of them than maybe any Republican nominee before. It's a group for whom God-graced coins could be an important issue, not to mention Romney's ongoing assault on Obama's approach to welfare policy.
It's also a group that contains a whole lot of NASCAR fans — a fact not lost on Romney Saturday night, as he made his final campaign stop of the weekend at a race in Richmond, Virginia. Chomping on a hot dog with his sleeves rolled up, Romney dolled out autographs and handshakes beneath a tent near the track, as a Romney/Ryan '12 stock car stood on display not far off.
The scene seemed to represent how far off the path of message discipline Romney had wandered. But asked about it later, Madden cast the weekend's campaigning in different terms.
"Just take a look at the last few days," Madden said. "Gov. Romney responded to dismal job numbers by talking with voters in Iowa and Virginia about his plan to fix our economy, help the middle-class and get the country back on track, yet the Obama campaign was hiding from those very same job numbers and trying to distract voters away from a discussion of the state of the economy under Obama."
He added, "We will absolutely be focused on the economy as a top issue for the duration of the campaign. The Obama campaign can't and won't offer a similar guarantee."