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David Axelrod Blasts Romney Over Limbaugh Response, Calls GOP Primary A ‘Death March’

During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Obama campaign senior adviser David Axelrod called the Republican’s Super Tuesday “Super Glue Day,” saying that Mitt Romney is “still stuck” in a drawn out primary process that’s like a “death march.”

He also took several shots at Romney’s weak response to the Rush Limbaugh “slut” controversy, at one point calling it a “test of leadership,” and asking “”If you don’t have the strength to stand up to the most strident voices in your party, how are you going to stand up to (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad?”

Axelrod addressed the Limbaugh controversy during his opening remarks, but also managed to work the radio giant into several other responses during the call. Romney, who still makes millions from Clear Channel owner Bain Capital, responded to Limbaugh’s verbal attacks on Georgetown law student and activist Sandra Fluke by saying “It’s not the language I would have used.”

Axelrod’s barrage at Romney comes a day after President Obama addressed the controversy during a press conference, in devastating fashion. The President framed Limbaugh’s attack on Ms. Fluke as an attack on everyone’s daughters, including his own, saying he wanted his daughters to be able to speak their minds “in a civil and thoughtful way. And I do not want them attacked or called horrible names.”

Axelrod and campaign manager Jim Messina also took shots at Romney’s Super Tuesday performance, noting lower than 2008 turnout in six of the Super Tuesday states. Axelrod said that Romney’s campaign “wanted to put the nomination away” on Super Tuesday, “but instead of Super Tuesday, it became Super Glue Day, and they’re still stuck with Santorum, and with Gingrich, and with the prospect of a long race.”

“What was extraordinary about yesterday,” Axelrod continued, “was, having outspent Santorum 6 to 1, and Gingrich 4 to 1, (Romney) found himself at midnight, still wondering if they were going to carry the state of Ohio, which he barely did. So he continues to grind out a kind of tactical…tactical victories in a kind of death march here.”

He also noted the “corrosive” effect of the long primary, manifested in Romney’s declining numbers with independent voters. Invoking Romney’s response to the Limbaugh controversy, Axelrod said “This doesn’t impress independent voters.”

Axelrod and Messina also talked up the Obama campaign’s efforts to build on its already impressive organization on the ground, its success at registering voters in Ohio, and the imminent release of a 17-minute documentary on President Obama’s first term, by Training Day director Davis Guggenheim. (I’m trying hard to picture Joe Biden in the Ethan Hawke role.)

But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. National Journal congressional correspondent Major Garrett asked Messina about a recent report that the Obama campaign told congressional Democrats not to expect much campaign cash, if any, from OFA. “If things are going so well,” Garrettt asked, “why are you seemingly so paranoid about the general election, and acting so aggressively to A. raise money and B. keep it in your own hands, and not share it with the campaigns for the Senate and the House?”

“There is unprecedented SuperPAC spending going on all over the country,” Messina replied, “and we have to be prepared for that.”

Even given the President’s much-criticized decision to encourage donations to the SuperPAC supporting him, Priorities USA Action, it’s doubtful that Priorities will be able to keep pace with anti-Obama forces like the Koch brothers and Karl Rove, whom Axelrod name-checked during the call. If there’s going to be significant pushback against negative SuperPAC ads, most of it will probably have to come from the Obama campaign. For better or worse (better, the President’s suppporters will tell you), President Obama just doesn’t have as much to offer the individual billionaire as Romney and Co. do.

Here’s a transcript of the call, via email from Obama For America:

Transcript: State of the Race Call
March 7, 2012

BEN LABOLT: Hey everybody, it’s Ben LaBolt, here in Chicago. Thanks for joining the call today. We wanted to give you a state of the race update. On the line is Campaign Manager Jim Messina and Senior Strategist David Axelrod. They’ll speak at the top and then we’ll take questions. With that, I’ll turn it over to Jim.

JIM MESSINA: Hey everyone, thanks for joining us. In every primary we’ve seen just how disappointed Republicans are in their candidates and how dissatisfied they are with their choices. In state after state, Republicans voters have stayed home and frankly I don’t blame them. On Super Tuesday we saw that dissatisfaction get supersized. The lack of enthusiasm among Republicans is real and it’s unmistakable, and what we saw last night is overall Republican primary turnout down 8.8% in the Super Tuesday states. In six states, turnout fell since 2008—Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Virginia and Tennessee. Independents have bailed on Romney just in time for the General Election. Romney’s gone so far right that it’s cost him the independent support. Only in his home state of Massachusetts did he win independents. He lost independents in every single other state. In Ohio he lost by ten points among “voters who understand average American problems.” He lost young voters in every state and he lost middle class voters in every state, except for Massachusetts. You know, what you saw last night in Ohio was Barack Obama getting more votes than any candidate on the ballot.

While all of this has been going on, we’ve been on the ground building the best grassroots campaign we can build to get ready for the general. Just this weekend in North Carolina we registered over 3,000 voters. We registered a couple thousand in Virginia over the weekend. I kicked off the campaign in Arizona a couple weeks ago and we did over a thousand voters there. You know, we are seeing thousands of volunteers streaming into our offices. Last week we had over a thousand women house parties across the country to follow up on our over 2700 house parties we did for the State of the Union. You know, our Greater Together youth campaign has had several events at key campuses and we have a bunch more to do. I was in North Carolina last week, kicking it off at North Carolina Central and we had so many people they couldn’t get everyone in the place. And as we get ready for the general we’re building in the youth, building in Latino and women, and other key demographics that really matter to this general election.

You know, we already have offices open across all the states. While all the candidates go to the next primary in Ohio, we have ten field offices open in Ohio and Pennsylvania and they’re going to stay there until Election Day and expand. We already have 15 offices open in Florida and all across our battleground states we’re building real capacity to turn voters out, persuade them, register them and do all the things we’ve got to do. In the coming weeks we have a couple of things we’re really excited about. First, as we announced yesterday, the Vice President, starting next week, is gonna give a series of key speeches on issues that are going to define the general election. That starts next week in Ohio. And then we’ll have a few other speeches on that. And then next week we’re releasing a 17-minute documentary about the President’s first term in office by the director Davis Guggenheim. It’s going to put into perspective the enormous challenges that the nation faced when the President took office and the strides we’ve made together. As you know we rolled out our truth team a couple weeks ago and over a million people have already joined the effort to push back against the distortions on the other side and we think this is a really big effort in our ongoing ability to push back against some of the stuff you’re seeing out there. And so we feel good about where we are, we have a lot of work to do, but as the other side continues their move to the right, we are on the ground organizing, doing the things we need to do. And I think that’s what you’ve seen over the course of the past couple weeks and that you’ll continue to see. And with that I’ll turn it over to my brother Mr. Axelrod to give his thoughts.

DAVID AXELROD: Thanks Messina. I feel honor-bound to point out that the overflow crowd in North Carolina was mostly due to Jim Messina being there [laughter]. That happens wherever he goes. Yeah, yesterday was an interesting day. You know, the Romney campaign wanted to put the campaign away, their nominating battle away, yesterday. Instead of Super Tuesday it became Super Glue-Day for them. They’re still stuck with Santorum and with Gingrich and with the prospect of a long race here. Already, even before yesterday, they were running, true to form, running their negative ads, negative calls against Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama, so they obviously anticipated a prolonged race. What was extraordinary about yesterday was that having outspent Santorum 6 to 1 and Gingrich 4 to 1, Romney found himself at midnight, still wondering whether he was going to carry the state of Ohio, which he barely did. And so he continues to grind out a kind of tactical victory and you know, tactical victories in a kind of death march here. But, he is incurring… You know, Bill McIntyre said that, when he was evaluating the poll for the Wall Street Journal and NBC earlier in the week, called the race corrosive. And you can really see it as time goes on. You can see it in Romney’s numbers nationally, now down to 28% approval rating, 39% negative. And you can see it in the returns, you know, he continues to lose except in the state of Massachusetts yesterday, he lost voters under 100k, 100,000 dollars income.

So he continues not to connect with working class voters, in the states in which he runs. He continues to lose among independent voters and that’s going to become increasingly so, as he tacks further to the right on whether… to the right of Perry on immigration and Gingrich on immigration, to the right of Santorum on contraception. He’s going to continue to lose independent voters when he walks away from issues like the one involving Rush Limbaugh last week, where he essentially refused to comment on what was a really egregious set of comments by Limbaugh. Why? Because he’s afraid to challenge a guy who’s the de-facto head of his party. This doesn’t impress independent voters and it shows up even in these primary campaigns, but even more so in this polling. So, you know, he may be the nominee, I don’t think his, I guess his campaign held a call today to talk about the math and talk about that he was inevitable message to Republicans and all of the subsequent states is that your votes don’t count and that… they’re stuck with him. Essentially, I’m your guy, so live with it, is the message. Now I don’t think that that is necessarily going to be how the message is received from voters. I think these campaigns are going to go on. But meanwhile, we’re using this time, as Jim said, to build while they’re destroying each other, we’re building a campaign, nationally, that is based on a positive vision for the future of this country and a real belief that we can build an economy in which the middle class is growing and not shrinking, in which hard work is rewarded, responsibility is rewarded, where people play by the same rules and we pull together and grow, in a way that’s healthy and sustainable– as opposed to going back to the same policies that we’ve seen in the past.

So, we’re… this is a state of the race call. You know we’re encouraged by what we see. We’re fortified for a tough race. We know when they finally do get a nominee, whenever that is, that it’ll be a tough race. We know that there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of Super PAC money, matched against us— or that will be matched against us. We understand that. We understand that we’ve lived through difficult times and the environment itself poses challenges to us. We understand all of that. But if you look at where we were six months ago, where we are today, we believe we’re making steady progress because of what we’re doing, because of what the economy is doing and because of what the Republicans are doing. And we’re going keep, we’re going keep forging ahead. One last point on this. There’s been a lot of talk about how Mitt Romney can unify the Republican party… It’s very hard to unify a party when 90% of your advertising or more is negative, when all you’re doing is attacking your opponents. We went through an entire campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and in perhaps, one, or one or two instances, she was even mentioned in an ad and we try and appeal to the best in people and they appear to be appealing to the worst instincts and impulses. I think there’s a price to be paid for that. You see it in Romney’s numbers and you see it in degradation the Republican Party’s numbers. Now that may be the kind of campaign he intends to run against us as well. We’re confident. We’re confident in the American people and we’re confident in the campaign we’re building, that we can we repel that challenge.

LABOLT: With that, let’s open it up to any questions. Please give your outlet before asking a question.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN: Hi guys. Thanks for doing this. In a Politico breakfast this morning, the DNC convention chair Antonio Villaraigosa said that he thinks gay marriage is part of the party platform. How do you all feel about this? Does that put the President in an uncomfortable position? You think his position might evolve further on this before the convention?

MESSINA: Hi Jessica, it’s Messina. Let me take that one. Look, we’re in the big tent party here. POTUS has a great record on fighting for fundamental fairness for all Americans, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and many other accomplishments we are very, very proud of. You know there’s a process. There’s not even a delegate platform committee yet. There’s a process to go through this discussion and the DNC will go through that and we will have a platform. But that, our record stands in sharp contrast to the other side and what the other side has said is that they want a constitutional amendment on anti-marriage. They want to put back into place Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and a bunch of other regressive policies. And so that couldn’t be any more contrasted with our record and so, there’ll be a process from that and we will go through that process.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from the line of Jeff Reuters at Reuters.

JASON MASON, REUTERS: That’s supposed to be Jeff Mason at Reuters. At least we weren’t rooters today.

AXELROD: What a company manual, you changed your name.

MASON: Exactly. [laughter] Thanks for doing the call. My question is two-fold. One, how does the Super Tuesday results affect your strategy moving forward in terms of there possibly being a longer Republican primary? And secondly, the Romney campaign gave an update on their fundraising today for February. Can you give us one for yours?

MESSINA: Uh, no. But thanks Jeff. We’ll announce at the appropriate time, the way we always do to our supporters. David, do you want take the first one–

AXELROD: In terms of our strategy, we, as we suggest in our remarks, we’re always going to take this time to build and to engage the millions of people across this country who are and want to be part of this effort. It’s really been, I have to say. I was in Florida last week, in Gainesville, with young people there. The level of enthusiasm was really inspiring to me. So, all over this country, people want to be engaged. We’re putting that in place. We’re building organizations . These organizations are going to make a difference. The President is obviously doing his job, but we as a campaign are out and projecting the history of where we were and where we are now and the the things he’s done to this point and the vision he has for the future, about how we build the kind of economy that I described earlier, that works for the middle class. We believe that to grow the economy, you’ve got to grow the middle class and the two work together. The sort of top-down, trickle-down theory that was tested [inaudible] and we’re going to prosecute that case. We’re going to keep on doing the things that we’ would’ve done. Now the Vice President is going to go out and start making a series of speeches because we can’t wait to make our case. Frankly, whomever the Republican nominee is, they all represent the same bankrupt and bankrupting economic theory, you know, the massive tax cuts, particularly at the top, and cutting Wall Street loose to write its own rules and somehow, our economy will thrive and everyone will profit from that. And so, whomever the nominee is, we know we’ll be facing that theory. And so, we can certainly draw that contrast, but for to move forward and make our case, and in that sense, you know we’re not waiting for the nominee to do that, but there’s nothing that happened yesterday that would change our plans.

LABOLT: Next question.

OPERATOR: Question from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

REPORTER: Hi, thank you. Looking at last night’s results in the Republican primary it’s clear that Romney did very well in the urban areas, in true urban areas and that Santorum carried the rural areas. Asked about that today the Romney campaign says well this shows that we can be competitive in those very areas that Obama carried in 2008. Do you agree with that at all?

MESSINA: It’s Messina. I don’t. Look, you look at your own poll in Ohio and other polls that show us clearly leading in urban areas and I think his bigger problem is, you know in every state but his home state of MA he lost independent voters, he lost voter, middle-class voters. And those are who typically decide elections in Ohio. You know I think he’s made his problems worse in this primary in, you saw that last night in Ohio, you can’t put together a coalition to win a general election in Ohio without young voters, which he lost last night, without independents which he lost last night, or without middle-class voters which he lost last night.

AXELROD: Yeah, I mean the fact is that he’s leveraged the general I mean they’ve run a very tactical race trying to grind victories out week after week taking the positions that they think they will they need to prevail but there are consequences to that when you stake out these very, very extreme positions on, for example, immigration and use the language that they’ve used there are consequences that you saw. That and their economic theory which would mean massive, massive cuts in, you know education programs and health care programs and small business programs and so on that in important to middle-class people and particularly to the Hispanic you know has particular interest in the Hispanic community. You saw the poll that was released the other day, the Fox Latino poll, Romney was at 14 percent versus the president. You know and all independent voters, as Jim mentioned, as I mentioned earlier, moving away from him. You know, I think that their interpretation of yesterday’s results comes under the category of trying to turn a hamburger into steak.

LABOLT: Next question.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Scott Powers.

POWERS: Jim, I want to thank you very much. I’m curious about Romney’s record at this point of not doing well in the red states but winning the swing states- Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia- that you very much need to win. Does this suggest to you that he has more latent strength in in these swing states then you’re giving him credit for?

AXELROD: Boy, I’ll tell you, you look at the way he won Florida which is to you know, massively outspend his opponents and run 99 percent negative ads to win a plurality down there. I wouldn’t take too much from that, I don’t think there’s anything that happened in Ohio yesterday that would- should give him hope about carrying the state of Ohio. The fact is that every poll that I’ve seen recently shows the president with a- with a lead in Ohio. Our situation in Ohio is much different than it was even 6 months ago because I think that Romney is a very, very vulnerable candidate in the industrial heartland of this country. How can you be a candidate who says let Detroit go bankrupt and who disdains manufacturing and who has his history in business of closing down factories and, you know, squeezing businesses for the profit of him and his partners but costing jobs? How do you then go back to people in the industrial Midwest and then say I’m the leader for you. I think he’s got tremendous problems in every bit of polling, general election polling in Michigan, where the president has a pretty substantial lead. In places like Wisconsin, and in Ohio, which is a traditional swing state where the President has a lead, there is nothing there that would suggest that anything Romney has done over the last 6 months has made him a stronger candidate against us.

MESSINA: Boy I agree with that. Look, he is not winning in these states he is limping across the finish line. I mean last night in Ohio he outspent Santorum 4 to 1 and only won by a few thousand votes. In Virginia turn-out was down by 50% and his toughest two candidates weren’t even on the ballot. So I don’t think you can look at any of these things and say he is showing any strength there. You can’t lose independents and middle class voters in every state but your own and think you are showing strength and, you know, David referenced this but I want to come back to it because it is so important. In the Fox Latino poll out the other day you know, he is at 14% with Latino voters. I mean, we are already at 70% with a 73% approval rating; those are numbers that portend a very difficult general election.

LABOLT: Next question.

OPERATOR: Ken Thomas from the Associated Press.

THOMAS: Thanks. Is the drawn out Republican primary hurting your ability to create a sense of urgency among, you know, your supporters and donors? Messina had an e-mail to the affect that too many supporters are waiting until there is a clear Republican nominee to make their donation. And then secondly, have the five re-election map scenarios that you laid out last year been tweaked at all based on some of the primary results?

MESSINA: Let me take the second one first and the answer is no, we continue to think we are playing on an even more expanded map. You know I was in Arizona the other day, you’ve seen public polls with both candidate within the margin of error of each other. We continue to look at an expanded map and feel very good and David referenced some of the most recent polls in the swing states, so if anything our map has gotten more expansive. There is more opportunities and we continue to look at that and, you know, what we see in our volunteer states, our volunteer offices is the longer the Republican primary goes, you know, the longer we have to continue to build and that’s what we’ve done and, you know, we continue to make the case and I sent that e-mail out overnight cause I’m not a big sleeper and was having fun, but the truth is you have to remind people what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and, you know, the house parties I referenced you know, the women’s house parties last week and the State of the Union house parties and all of the voter registration stuff we get, that voter registration stuff I talked about is all volunteer stuff. And so, you know, while they are moving to the right we’re on the ground organizing and that’s what we should be doing.

AXELROD: Yea, let me, let me answer the first part of it. Look, candidly, I do think that it’s easier to raise money when you have one opponent. But on the other hand when you say, do people have more of a sense of urgency when you have an opponent, I think every single day that people watch these Republican candidates, their sense of urgency grows about the need to re-elect the President, because they are in sort of a mad scramble to respond to the most strident voices in their party (INAUDIBLE) the longer I suppose we’ll see. Again I think the Limbaugh case was a good example. The fact that they and particularly Romney were so timid in response speaks to the dynamic of the Republican primary. They were afraid to challenge the de facto boss of the Republican primary. And I think that when you hear the Romney people speak, one of them I saw quoted saying well we’re just going to start all over again in the general election, they think they can just wipe the slate clean. That their words don’t mean anything, that the positions they’ve taken don’t mean anything, that they can have a do over. But I think the American people take his word seriously and his position seriously. We take his word seriously and his position seriously. And we’re going to hold him to it. This is not a game. You’re running for the President of the United States.

When you stake out positions in the midst of the campaign, you’re going to be held to those positions. And we’re going to hold him to his positions and if he’s the nominee, we’ll look forward to a debate because those positions, whether they were tactically arrived at for purposes of being the nominee, are the wrong direction for the country and if you don’t have the strength to stand up to the most strident voices in your party, how are you going to stand up to Ahmadinejad, how are you going to stand up to the challenges of the Presidency. And these are tests, presidential campaigns are tests. You are tested every single day in different ways. The Limbaugh thing was a test of leadership and you have them all the time. Mitt Romney has failed those tests in the campaign, and the longer this primary race goes on my guess is he’ll have more tests and my guess is that he will continue to fail them.

LABOLT: We’ve got time for a couple more questions.

OPERATOR: And you have a question from the line Major Garrett from the National Journal.

GARRETT: Hello gentlemen, how are you?

AXELROD: Good.

GARRETT: Jim and David, first, I hear everything you say and you make a very strong case that this process is not helping Republicans, it’s helping the President. All the key voting groups are moving in your direction, you’re building a great grassroots campaign. But on the fundraising side the President’s very busy, 100 fundraisers, Jim and David apparently had a meeting last week telling Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid ‘Don’t expect any money right now, we need to husband our resources,’ so if things are going so well, why are you seemingly so paranoid about the general election and acting so aggressively a) receive money and b) keep it in your own hands? and not share it with the campaigns for the Senate and the House?

MESSINA: Well, Major as you have seen out there, there’s unprecedented Super PAC spending going on. You know tens of millions of dollars all over the country and you know we have to be prepared for that. And you’re already seeing that. Last week super PACs that put several million dollars on the air in the key states against us, you know we’re seeing that repeatedly all over the place. So we have to prepare for that, get ready for that, and that’s what we’re doing.

AXELROD: I mean, I just think, we are in a whole new world here, Major. We’re in the Citizens United World. And you’ve got the Koch brothers who declared to a group of contributors to their operation that defeating Obama is the mother of all wars. You’ve got Karl Rove who’s pledged to raise $250 million dollars for Super PAC spending. And all the, the President’s taken on some very powerful interests on the behalf of people in the presidency and the Citizens United rule, ruling allows those interest groups to siphon unlimited amounts of money to run negative ads against us. We would be insane not to be worried about that. That is a big concern. I believe we have the strongest candidate, I believe he has the strongest vision for this country, I believe all things being equal we will win this election but money does matter and the fact is that they are hoping to, they’re hoping to paper over their inadequacies by overwhelming us with negative ads and we have to be prepared to deal with them.

MESSINA: Between the various promises between Rove and the Koch brothers, etc. we’re looking at over half a billion dollars in independent spending potentially. We have to be ready for it.

LABOLT: Last question.

OPERATOR: Elizabeth Llorente from Fox News Latino.

LLORENTE: Hi, you mentioned the Fox News Latino poll which we all worked on and I’m the politics editor for Fox News Latino. And I’d like you to comment a little more about how significant you think the response was that Latino voters feel very alienated from the Republican Party and that a lot of that is due to how they perceive the attitudes towards Latinos to be by Republicans and also there overwhelming support for the President.

AXELROD: Well I think this Republican debate has been, should be very concerning to people in Hispanic communities across this country. Because you know you’ve seen a particularly Gov. Romney use the Latino community as foils to try and gain advantage over his candidates and you know the suggestion of mass deportations and particularly the embrace of the Arizona policy which you know so stigmatizes you know Hispanic Americans you know we’ve seen such ugliness and divisiveness around these issues and to embrace it and give it your imprimatur is an affront. I don’t believe, by the way, that Latino voters are single-issue voters by any stretch of the imagination. I think issues like education, like support for small business, job training, health care – these are primary issues and on these issues all the Republicans fall flat because they’d rather give large tax cuts to the wealthy than support the kinds of things we need to grow this country. In terms of just stigmatizing the community, a lot of damage has been done in this Republican race. And again you know I think there is this attitude on the part of some over there in the Romney camp that they can just wipe the slate clean, that they can get the nomination and that all that was said in the past just goes away. That’s not the way this works. I think they’ve done real and lasting damage and frankly they deserve it.

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