Say what? The 2008 presidential campaign theme could be “Oops. What I meant was ….”
Just about every Republican and Democrat has flubbed an answer to a question or made a comment that he or she later took back or clarified under fire.
This month alone, Republican Mitt Romney backtracked from a comment about his sons’ lack of military service. Rival Rudolph W. Giuliani retreated from his suggestion that he spent as much time as September 11 rescue workers at the ground zero site and was exposed to the same health risks. Democrat Bill Richardson stumbled over a question about whether homosexuality was a choice. All sought to skirt controversy by quickly explaining themselves.
It is happening so often, “you’d think it’s deliberate,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Joking aside, he said: “I don’t think you can go through this grueling ordeal and not find even the most seasoned politician who isn’t susceptible to misspeaking or a malaprop here or there. We’re seeing some genuinely real moments as these candidates are in the pressure cooker.”
Chalk up the glut of apologies and clarifications to changing times.
Candidates have become sensitive to the Internet era and painfully aware of video-sharing Web sites such as YouTube that allow images and audio to be posted online immediately. At the same time, it has become routine for campaigns to send out “trackers” with recorders to capture a rival’s every appearance in hopes of catching an election-altering misstep to use in a television ad or Web video.
“In the olden days, this wasn’t an issue because if you said something that could be problematic, you just denied that you said it,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant. “These days, it’s too easy to have cold, hard proof.”
Republican and Democratic strategists say that candidates who slip up typically take one of two damage-control avenues.
Some opt to stand firmly behind their comments and plow forward with their campaigns. They think that apologizing or clarifying is a sign of weakness and that sticking to their viewpoints shows strength and projects self-awareness. The risk is that they can appear stubborn and unwilling to acknowledge mistakes.
More often, candidates decide to acknowledge their errors or explain their comments quickly. The hope is to take blunders off the table and blunt the impact of any attacks. But they also could appear as though they do not mean what they say and will change positions when they feel the heat.
Regardless of which path they choose, strategists say, each situation must be handled individually and candidates must strike a balance between being authentic and being willing to concede that they are wrong.
“I’d rather be who I am and make mistakes than come across as this very carefully scripted, totally handled person. I think people are so sick of that,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican. “People will forgive me for a mistake more than they’ll forgive me for phoniness. And, if they don’t, then I’m not their guy.”
Mr. Huckabee once referred to Arkansas as a “banana republic” and, on another occasion, jokingly attributed his 110-pound weight loss to spending time in a concentration camp.