Newsflash: Sen. Marco Rubio is on Mitt Romney’s shortlist for vice president.
That didn’t sound like news — until anonymous Republicans cast doubt on the situation Tuesday, throwing Romney’s campaign into a messaging tailspin that took an entire day to clean up.
And it was Romney who had to do the mop-up work after ABC, the Washington Post and the New York Times quoted advisers of Romney saying the Florida senator wasn’t under serious consideration as a vice-presidential running mate.
“This story was entirely false,” Romney told reporters. “Marco Rubio is being thoroughly vetted as part of our process.”
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But by the time Romney made his comments — about 6 p.m. — the damage was done.
Republicans and conservatives, particularly those in must-win Florida, felt Romney’s advisers had disrespected Rubio. Democrats had a field day.
The report first surfaced on ABC Tuesday morning just as Rubio’s much-touted autobiography, An American Son, was available in stores. Soon, all the political talk swirled around Romney and his alleged dismissing of Rubio. Rather than spend all his time bashing President Obama over the economy, Romney and his campaign had to endure questions about the anonymous Republicans who seemed to have relatively little good to say about Rubio.
Romney and his campaign did little to quiet the talk quickly. On Fox News and then on a Sean Hannity radio interview, Romney said he wouldn’t talk about the vetting process, which only he and adviser Beth Myers knew about.
Soon, the Washington Post found an anonymous Romney adviser to confirm the ABC source. The source suggested the 41-year-old Rubio would fail the “gravitas test” and wasn’t ready to be president.
The Florida Democratic Party seized on the story by sending out an email with the headline: “Rubio fails preliminary review in Veepstakes.”
“According to today’s Washington Post article on GOP Veepstakes, it only took the Romney camp a ‘preliminary review’ to determine Marco Rubio would fail to pass vetting,” the email said. “Ouch, that’s going to leave a mark.”
Conservatives started to howl that Romney was needlessly ignoring one of the most exciting Republican picks this election cycle. Some suspected internal Romney advisers were sandbagging Rubio to advance their own vice-presidential choices.
Finally, Romney spoke up and cleared the air about the anonymous sources.
“I can’t imagine who such people are but I can tell you this: They know nothing about the vice presidential selection or evaluation process,” he said. “There are only two people in this country who know who are being vetted and who are not and that’s Beth Myers and myself. And I know Beth well. She doesn’t talk to anybody.”
Some, however, suspected it was too little damage control too late.
Though it probably won’t affect the campaign in the long term, the one-day messaging crisis could serve as a wake-up call to the campaign.
“Perhaps it’s a lesson for the Romney campaign to shore up any leaks,” said Brian Hughes, a Republican consultant and former spokesman for the state GOP.
“Any potential vice-presidential pick out there has a constituency in the party and in the conservative base,” Hughes said, “and to leave any of those supporters feeling disenfranchised is just a dumb move.”