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Does Romney Have a YouTube Problem?

Does Romney Have a YouTube Problem?

By Erin McPike - March 16, 2011

Mitt Romney sports what is usually a big advantage over the other likely competitors for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012: He's run before.

But in the current era of instant news -- in the form of news videos broadcast to the world -- that experience could also be a curse, and Romney himself has hinted at the reason why: As the former Massachusetts governor told a collection of some 300 Republicans at a speech in New Hampshire earlier this month: "I made more than my share of gaffes here -- as my sons never fail to remind me."

Just this week Politico deemed Romney the candidate best equipped to avoid or appropriately handle the miscues that make for the "YouTube moments" that can doom a campaign the way they did former Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen when running for re-election in 2006. Allen referred to campaign tracker S.R. Sidarth as "Macaca," which many took to be a racial slur.

A Romney adviser explained that because he and his team have been through a campaign before, they know how to handle -- or avoid -- those moments. Perhaps this is true, but even if it is, it won't completely immunize the candidate from his square image or teenage-boy sense of humor. Nor will it help stave off the real source of discomfit about Romney among conservatives: his previous incarnation -- some of it caught on camera -- as a political moderate.

On a personal level for Romney, it may not be all that bad. He's been described as a carbon copy of the 1950s television character Ward Cleaver, and he did wind up in a number of moments befitting a situation comedy that could almost show him to be a lovable, if clueless, patriarch.

A stroll down memory lane shows that there's a YouTube montage waiting to be made from some of Romney's goofier moments in the 2008 cycle.

In just one November 2007 event, a chili festival in Anderson, S.C., a trio of young women who worked at a nearby Hooters restaurant rushed up to hug a giggling Romney, who thought the waitresses were cheerleaders. A few moments earlier, Romney greeted a couple of actors dressed in apple and banana costumes.

Two days later he was up north in New Hampshire, knocking on voters' doors. As he was leaving the stoop at one house, he picked up a large maple leaf and marveled at the size of it, showing it off to the reporters in front of him. "Adam and Eve would not have looked as promiscuous if they had had leaves this big," he mused aloud.

Later that November in Florida at an event for volunteers, Romney said he enjoyed meeting and shaking hands with all his supporters. He added, "I like the hugs, too. The girls in particular. I appreciate that."

And in the final stretch of his campaign in the Sunshine State in January, 2008, Romney attended a parade on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and did a riff of the song, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" with some children gathered around him. The episode caused a few minor headaches for the campaign, as they later tried to explain to him why it could present a problem.

Romney's jokes on the stump tended not to be germane sometimes, including one about a couple on a beach who came across a genie. A woman asked to be covered in jewels and was granted her wish, so her husband asked to be married to someone who was 25 years younger. "OK, you're 25 years older!" Romney used to say, cracking up at his joke.

Since then, Romney's jokes have gotten a bit funnier and more relevant to politics, like his recent jabs at President Obama. Even on that relatively safe terrain, YouTube means you're always only one slip-of-the-tongue away from ridicule. And the clips pointing it out don't have to be recent.

At a morning event in South Carolina during the previous cycle, he twice misspoke by confusing Obama's name with Osama bin Laden's.

And in the interest of being careful at an October 2007 MSNBC debate on economic issues, he trampled on any momentum he could have picked up from his otherwise solid performance by twice telling moderator Chris Matthews that a president simply should consult attorneys if he is to bypass congressional approval in the interest of using military force against Iraq's nuclear holdings.

Pundits pounced on his lack of passion, and the moment is now forever memorialized on YouTube and in the tape libraries of all of the major networks.

Romney does, however, have experience in dealing with old video clips that come back to bite. One that haunted him four years ago in his attempt to remake himself as a social conservative was from a 1994 Senate debate against the late Edward Kennedy in which he proclaimed himself to be more socially liberal in certain cases than the iconic Democrat.

Kennedy accused Romney of being "multiple-choice" on abortion, but Romney replied that a close family friend of his had passed away from an illegal abortion, and he would not impose any beliefs about the issue on anyone else. "You will not see me waver on that or be a multiple choice," he said then.

In this shorter span of time between his most recent campaign and the one impending, some of Romney's moments in the last race might prove helpful to him.

At one South Carolina event, a woman stood on a chair to ask him a question about abortion, and she began to sob about her own daughter's abortion and offer graphic details about the procedure. The moment could have become worse, but Romney, sensing discomfort in the room, took the microphone away from the woman and moved on.

And at a health care event in Florida before a November debate, a reporter asked Romney how he could make sure that every American could obtain health insurance under his national plan without an individual mandate.

"I would tie incentives, as well as some sticks, to encourage states to deregulate their health insurance markets and to take action to get all their citizens insured," he said, perhaps saving himself from further damage over the issue now that it has become a difficult hurdle for him with the GOP base.

It remains to be seen whether Romney will save himself from embarrassing or harmful moments on the campaign trail this cycle, but he's certainly trying to keep the unscripted moments to a minimum.

He's done pretty well so far -- but there is that one ad-lib about Sarah Palin during his appearance on NBC's Tonight Show.

Asked by Jay Leno about Palin's quitting the governorship in Alaska before the end of her first term, Romney said that although circumstances may have been different for her, he would not want to quit early. Perhaps seeing the headline in his mind's eye, Romney quickly added: "She's a remarkable, energetic, powerful figure in my party." But then, perhaps not considering the YouTube factor, he threw in, "and attractive, too."

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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