The Republican presidential campaign fanned out its top point men to the TV talk shows Sunday, with vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan sitting down with Fox News to discuss the current momentum in the race and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hoofing it through interviews with NBC, ABC and CBS to vigorously defend the campaign.
It was a study in messaging breakdown: While both politicians focused on the man at the top of the ticket -- belying pundits who had expected them to talk themselves up as much as Mitt Romney -- they couldn’t have been more different in their approach.
On Fox, Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Commitee chairman, talked down Republican expectations for the debates, which begin Wednesday. But on CBS, Christie made it sound like Romney would wipe the floor with President Barack Obama. On Fox, Ryan focused on Romney’s tax policy, speaking of “incentives” and citing numerical job creation goals. On NBC, Christie ran away from a question about Romney’s views on taxation, deftly turning around to focus his answer on abstract values he described as “what Mitt Romney believes in.” On Fox, Ryan acknowledged the campaign had committed “missteps,” including in those errata Mitt Romney’s leaked comments at a fundraiser earlier this year where he talked about the “47 percent” of Americans who don’t pay income tax. On ABC, Christie denied that comment had done damage to the campaign.
Of course, it wasn’t as bad as all that. In spite of the divergence in the two men’s messages, both still seemed energized and insisted the Republicans were “gonna win” in November.
Christie, who in particular has been criticized for seeming to promote himself more than the ticket, and was reported by the New York Post to have turned down a chance to run for vice president because he didn’t think Romney would win, walked a rather straight and narrow line Sunday.
Blasting the circular firing line of Republican pundits and anonymously sourced officials now attacking the campaign in the media, Christie glibly told CBS’ "Face the Nation" that “everybody gets to be more critical when you don’t use their name.”
Except for a single “Let me tell you what we did in New Jersey" on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Christie refused to take the bait from several interviewers who asked him about his presidential ambitions and own views.
“Mitt Romney’s gonna win, so it’s a question I don’t need to address,” Christie said on CBS.
“Mitt Romney is the future of this party,” he stated as an answer to a loaded question on NBC about whether he still saw himself as the future of the GOP.
The Debate Will Change Everything… Or Not
Indeed, perhaps more than many surrogates cited in media recently, Christie went on to enthusiastically back his party’s titular leader, asserting that while the Romney campaign had a “rough couple of weeks,” the debate between the two presidential candidates next Wednesday would be a “barn burner” that would turn things around.
“On Wednesday night, Mitt Romney is going to stand in the stage next to the president of the United States, and I’m telling you, on Thursday morning, we’re going to have a completely different narrative to the race,” Christie vowed on CBS. On NBC’s, he predicted that “Wednesday night’s the restart of this campaign.” On ABC’s "This Week," he said “all of you are going to be shaking your head.”
That upselling of expectations contrasted sharply with the tack taken by Ryan on "Fox News Sunday." Asked what he expected after the debates were over, Ryan said he didn’t “think one event is going to make or break this campaign.”
"Look, President Obama is a very -- he's a very gifted speaker. The man's been on the national stage for many years, he's an experienced debater, he's done these kinds of debates before. This is Mitt's first time on this kind of a stage," Ryan said.
The Tax Specifics Are Important… Or Not
The debate prediction was only one line of divergence between Ryan and Christie’s TV appearances. On Fox, Ryan peppered his appearance with phrases like “revenue neutral," and suggested Romney’s tax plan was based on such a complicated formula that “it would take me too long to go through all the math” in a short TV interview.
On his interviews, however, Christie went for the gut appeal, saying on NBC that Mitt Romney is “not an accountant,” but instead was guided by more abstract values on fairness and the American Dream.
“Here's what I know he really believes,” Christie told host David Gregory. “What he believes is that everybody in America should have skin in the game. Everybody in America has to be part of a shared sacrifice to create opportunity for greatness again, for our people and our country.”
The “47 Percent” Comment Hurt Us… Or Not
Perhaps most notably, the Republicans were also at odds in the fallout from the recently leaked video of a fundraiser earlier this year, where Mitt Romney said he didn’t “have to worry about” about the “47 percent” of people who pay no income taxes since they were “dependent upon government” and he would “never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Christie suggested that, because the electorate was still not plugged into the election, and those that are recognize Romney’s beliefs are more nuanced than his words, the effect of the comment was negligible.
“[The voters] know political candidates... are going to say things inartfully,” Christie said on CBS.
In contrast, Ryan told Fox the comments were an example of the fact “we've had some missteps.”
Sunday’s off-message appearances are unlikely to count among those missteps. Still, and even though both Christie and Ryan were at pains to downplay their political ambitions beyond 2012, the damn-the-talking-points approach taken be either (or both) men is only likely to contribute to that chatter.
“I think both camps are kind of laying it on the line here,” "Meet the Press " host David Gregory noted in post-show comments, referring to the way Christie’s ringing endorsement of Romney’s debate skills were counteracted later in his show by Democratic strategist David Plouffe.
For all intents and purposes, he could have also been talking about the Christie and Ryan camps.