It’s not the wasps, bees and mosquitos, though stingers all, that bedevil presidential candidates. It’s the fruit flies. Insignificant in their own right, they nevertheless have the ability to damage and even sink a campaign.
That’s the lesson for Mitt Romney, as taught by Eric Fehrnstrom, his once-anonymous “top aide,” who confided to a CNN interviewer that Mr. Romney is not really a born-again conservative, that he’s only pandering to the unwashed crazies on the right. As soon as he locks up the nomination, he’ll hit the reset button to emerge as the RINO - Republican in name only - he really is, to appeal to independent voters. Mr. Fehrnstrom didn’t say it quite like that (fruit flies never light long enough to make anything clear), but that’s the clear message he intended to send.
In case he had not left a strong-enough sabotage of Mr. Romney’s courtship of the unwashed, Mr. Fehrnstrom, feeling his self-importance, made sure no one could miss his point: “I think you hit the reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
Mr. Romney knew at once there was a problem, potentially such a game-changer that he overcame his reluctance to talk to reporters and emerged to offer an explanation, sort of. He talked in the marketing-speak dear to CEOs and business-school professors. He explained the obvious, that “organizationally” a general-election effort is very different from a primary campaign. Staffs are larger, and the focus is on raising money. (Isn’t it always?)
The he lapsed into the boilerplate that raises the hackles of the evangelicals and the tea-party partisans who can’t quite take Mr. Romney at his word. “I am running as a conservative Republican,” he said. If he had someone on his staff conversant in precise English, he would have been warned to avoid the words “running as a conservative,” because that’s exactly what the unwashed think he’s doing. He plowed on: “I was a conservative Republican governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican nominee, at that point, hopefully, for president. The policies and positions are the same.”
His usually happy face did not radiate much happiness, and he seemed to understand that he was not persuading anyone that he was angry about the undisciplined fruit-fly infestation. He could have emphasized how seriously he was taking the subverting of his message by swatting and sacking the guilty fruit fly on the spot. He didn’t, and that leaves Republican voters with the impression that maybe the offense was not so great, after all. Maybe it would only be a two-day media sensation. Maybe it would be forgotten by week’s end.
Or maybe not. Rick Santorum’s press spokesman hurried out to say the obvious, that the top aide’s remark “confirms what a lot of conservatives have been afraid of.”
“He used to be pro-abortion, he used to be pro-gay marriage, he used to be pro-Wall Street bailouts, he used to [embrace] the climate-change [scam].”
A feast of the most succulent bowl of fruit, lush mangoes, ripe pears and bananas at their peak can be spoiled by the tiny squeak and flutter of an ambitious fruit fly in heat. The night of the Illinois primary was just such a feast for Mr. Romney. He had won the most telling primary of the season, falling just short of his first majority this year, and he gave his best speech of the season. He put the campaign focus on Barack Obama, his mismanagement of the economy, his clumsy adventures abroad and his dismal misunderstanding of what makes America exceptional.
The greatness of America begins with a dream, “and nothing is more fragile than a dream,” he said. “The genius of America is that we nurture those dreams and dreamers. We honor them. That’s part of what is uniquely brilliant about America. But day-by-day job-killing regulation, bureaucrat by bureaucrat, this president is crushing the dream and the dreamers, and I will make sure that finally ends.” Here was a touch of poetry that might have come from the Gipper himself, a tribute to the America that was and must be again.
Mitt Romney looks ever more like the inevitable nominee. He has nearly half of the 1,144 delegates he will need in Tampa. He got an important endorsement from Jeb Bush this week. Tea-party organizations are finally coming around, persuaded that he’s the conservative who can beat Barack Obama. If only he can control the fruit fly.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.