Instead of taking a victory lap after a big win in Illinois, Mitt Romney's campaign ended up with another gaffe to clean up Wednesday.
Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was asked on CNN whether Romney may be forced so far to the right by rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the primary race that it might hurt him if he's the party's nominee in the fall. Fehrnstrom responded: "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."
It didn't take long for Romney's opponents to pounce on that comment, given how it underscores the former Massachusetts governor's reputation for changing his positions.
Santorum sarcastically said Fehrnstrom's remarks "should be comforting to all of you who are voting in this primary — that whoever you're going to vote for is going to be a completely new candidate, remove all trace of any kind of marks and be able to draw a new picture."
NPR's Ari Shapiro says both Santorum and Gingrich brought Etch A Sketches on the campaign trail Wednesday.
"Gingrich actually handed his Etch A Sketch to a kid in the front row and said, 'Now you can be a presidential candidate,' " Ari reports for All Things Considered.
Ari says the Romney campaign hasn't provided a response yet — instead it's trying to focus on the Illinois win and Romney's endorsement by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Yet this is kind of a classic Romney situation," Ari notes, "where the good news is overshadowed by this unexpected gaffe that they are scrambling to clean up."
UPDATE at 6:34 p.m.: Romney Responds
Talking to reporters in Maryland, Romney said that the nature of his campaign would change if he becomes his party's nominee, but his positions wouldn't.
"It's a much larger campaign. Fundraising numbers are very different. We now work with the Republican National Committee instead of apart from any committee of that nature. So organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile," Romney said. "The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee — excuse me, at that point, hopefully, nominee for president. The policies and positions are the same."
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee has released an Etch A Sketch-themed video targeting Romney. "Mitt Romney is trying to scrub his extreme record," it says. "But there are some things you can't shake off."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Romney campaign is once again trying to clean up after a gaffe. This time, it wasn't the candidate who made the inopportune comment. It was one of Mitt Romney's senior advisers, in an interview on CNN this morning.
NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us now. And Ari, I want you to tell us about the problematic comment.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, let me set the scene for you. This is right after Romney's dominant win in Illinois and typically, the candidate or his advisers would take a victory lap on the cable TV shows. And so senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom went on CNN, and he was asked whether Mitt Romney has moved too far to the right to appeal to independent and moderate voters in a general election. And here's what Fehrnstrom said.
ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Well, 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.
SHAPIRO: Well, that plays into the worst stereotype of Romney as a political opportunist flip-flopper who will say and do whatever he needs to, in order to win election. Needless to say, people jumped all over it, and it has certainly shaken up the campaign today, as it were.
SIEGEL: Reaction today from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich?
SHAPIRO: Well, Santorum and Gingrich both quickly showed up with Etch A Sketches. Rick Santorum was campaigning in Louisiana today. Here's what he said.
RICK SANTORUM: Well, that should be comforting to all of you who are voting in this primary; that whoever you're going to vote for is going to be a completely new candidate. Remove all trace of any kind of marks, and be able to draw a new picture.
SHAPIRO: As Romney was campaigning in Maryland this afternoon, a spokesman - spokeswoman Alice Stewart, for Rick Santorum - showed up, giving out mini Etch A Sketches to the crowd. And Newt Gingrich, as I mentioned, also brought Etch A Sketch on the campaign trail with him. He handed it to a kid in the front row at his event and said: Now, you can be a presidential candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: And how has the Romney campaign responded to this?
SHAPIRO: Well, initially, aides said they weren't going to even acknowledge it or talk about it. They were going to focus on gas prices, President Obama. And in fact, Romney had this campaign event just outside of Baltimore this afternoon, where during the event, he didn't mention it at all. But afterward, he took one questions from reporters and it was, needless to say, about the Etch A Sketch. Here's what he said.
MITT ROMNEY: So organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile. The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee - excuse me; at that point, hopefully, nominee for president. The policies and positions are the same.
SIEGEL: So there was Governor Romney saying that it will be the same. Organizationally it will be different, he said.
SIEGEL: Is this a once-news-cycle wonder of a story that will be forgotten like the design on an Etch A Sketch, or might it have any consequences here?
SHAPIRO: Well, Gingrich, Santorum, and - of course - the Democrats certainly hope it sticks around, and they're doing their utmost to make sure it does. In terms of the course that the election takes, the next state to vote is Louisiana, which was never promising for Mitt Romney, regardless of any gaffes that he or his staffers might make. And big picture, the biggest gaffes are not likely to cost Romney the Republican nomination. But these are the kinds of nicks and scratches that can add up.
You remember in 2004, John Kerry was labeled as a flip-flopper. People started showing up to his rallies holding the footwear. It never totally went away. Too early to say whether that's going to happen to Romney with this, but it's the kind of thing they'd rather not have to deal with - especially in the wake of a major victory in Illinois, when they'd rather be talking about good news.
SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro, who has been traveling with the Mitt Romney campaign. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.