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Just what do politicians do when they're in trouble? Change the subject, of course

There's little doubt by now you've heard, because it sure seems like everybody’s heard, Mitt Romney’s now-famous – infamous – 47 percent comment. It set the political grapevine ablaze this week with discussion and speculation that this is the gaffe that’s sunk the Romney campaign with 46 days to go until Election Day. Much like John McCain’s “Michigan moment” in 2008 when he pulled his campaign out of the state and everyone just kind of declared, "game over."

But there are still 46 days to go and Romney and many of his fellow Republicans are saying: Whoa, not so fast...  It ain't over til it's over. “A lot of folks would just as soon have this election be done now… The fact is elections are held on one day, November sixth, and not before," State Attorney General Bill Schuette, Romney's Michigan campaign manager, said this week.  It's a variation on the classic, "the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.”

Redirecting the Message

Political campaigns are really about three things: one is identifying your voters, another is making sure your voters get out on election day and the third - which is especially critical to getting out your voters as well as persuading the ones who are undecided - is “messaging.”  Because in politics, “messaging” is a verb. So, for the Romney campaign, the question is, how to pull off that pivot, how to change the subject. And the message of the moment is, "Hey, everybody makes mistakes."

“Well, I think Barak Obama has made a lot of mistakes, too. When he said the private sector is doing just fine. That’s nonsense. When a small businessperson is successful, he said that person didn’t build it. We know that’s not true," Schuette explained, trying to create an equivalency between the two candidates and the two campaigns. Those are things the president said that – taken out of context, certainly – but still were missteps that Republicans have now turned against him. Republicans have also reached back to 1998 when President Obama was still a state senator in Illinois to something he said, that he believes in wealth redistribution, ignoring that he also said he believes in free markets.

Republicans say Romney was simply stating a political fact, a strategic reality, that people who get some kind of federal assistance won’t vote for him. This really irked a lot of Republicans because Romney’s political math was so off. A lot of that 47 percent is people who typically do vote Republican. If you’re a Republican, it’s really time to talk about something else. They’ve been hosting events with state surrogates to talk about economic issues.

Staying Alive

So, Republicans this week certainly wanted to change the political subject. But what about when you want to keep a subject alive? We're talking specifically about Democrats here in Michigan and the controversy over vagina-gate and the Roy Schmidt-Jase Bolger election scandal. Both those stories are surely old news. The case of two female legislators being silenced ostensibly for violating House decorum – Representative Lisa Brown referred to her vagina during a floor debate on an abortion bill – that was back in June. The Schmidt-Bolger election rigging controversy was back in May. There was a prosecutor’s report in July. Now it’s in front of a grand jury. One judge gathering evidence, basically in secret.

Now Democrats are coming up with other ways to remind people of these controversies as they try to win some “earned media" (what the rest of us call “news coverage") before the November election. Democrats have proposed amendments and resolutions calling for Jase Bolger to step down, for investigations into the election rigging. But these aren’t serious efforts to do anything other than call attention to what happened. Republicans have dismissed these as simply politics.

Also in Lansing this week there was a rally that included a “hands-off-my body" dance in front of the Capitol – to remind people of the vagina controversy. It attracted a couple hundred people, and a few TV cameras. So, it got coverage.

So, the moral of this week's political story might just be, "if you're in trouble - change the subject. And, if the other guy is in trouble... keep pointing your finger their way."

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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