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Etch A Sketch. Those three little words may become more of a bane to Mitt Romney's campaign than, say, Bain Capital.
As Romney's longtime aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, has learned to his chagrin, those three small words can make a very big difference.
Earlier this month, Fehrnstrom actually made a statement very similar in kind if not wording to what he said Wednesday on CNN.
He was talking with reporters on March 7 about presidential candidates being able to shift messages between primary and general election campaigns, and he said:
"I think when this primary is over... we hit the reset button and the campaign begins anew with a different opponent, and we'll be able to draw sharp contrasts with the president and the president alone. It'll be a different race at that point..."
That comment drew nowhere near the attention of Wednesday's version:
"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."
By going for the clever and cute with the Etch A Sketch simile, he clearly went too far for his candidate's good.
The Romney campaign is turning to humor for damage control (Fehrnstrom tweeted that he would mention Mr. Potato Head next after the stock price of Ohio Art, which makes Etch A Sketch, tripled Thursday; Romney will be on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno next Tuesday.)
But Romney has a problem not so easily laughed away, at least not quite yet.
How big a difficulty? Some conservatives are calling for the candidate who once said "I like to fire people..." to prove it by making Fehrnstrom a test case. Bill McGurn, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote:
"If Mitt Romney really wants to demonstrate that he's not simply pandering when he tells us how conservative he is, he needs to fire his campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom."
Pretty harsh but there you have it.
The problem for Romney is that the Etch A Sketch gaffe boils down, into one rectangular piece of plastic, the prevailing perception of the GOP front-runner: that his political stances are more situational than even the average politician's. It's the sense, fair or not, that he'll say whatever he feels he needs to say to win an election.
This explains why so many conservatives remain lukewarm or downright hostile to him: They're worried that the hard-core conservative they're being sold in the Republican primary season will morph into a liberal or moderate Massachusetts Republican in the general election.
With two sentences, Fehrnstrom has guaranteed that Romney will be dogged for the rest of the campaign by not just the tale of Seamus but Etch A Sketches.
Rick Santorum has already held one aloft on the campaign trail as he has drawn attention to Romney's conservative bona fides. Meanwhile, it's safe to predict the Etch A Sketch theme will be a recurring theme in political TV ads for months to come.
And here's another concern for Romney supporters: It's only March. There's a lot more time for more slips of the lip.
Meanwhile, the candidate has proven to be an almost uncanny gaffe-producing machine himself; he doesn't need any help from his advisers.
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