Stuart Rothenberg doesn’t think so:
Romney may well have failed to define himself as he would have liked to at this point, and that certainly is something his campaign needs to address. But I’m skeptical that it’s fatal. I’m not even certain the Republican nominee “needs to define himself quickly.”
Don’t get me wrong. The “define your opponent before he can define himself” argument is a compelling one when it comes to House races, low-visibility contests or even statewide contests when one of the candidates may not have the cash to compete. Voters usually don’t prefer candidates with a lot of negative baggage (though in the past three elections they have elected some “change” candidates with considerable personal baggage).
But presidential contests are different.
Unlike most elections in this country, by the end of the campaign, most voters are going to have watched Romney and President Barack Obama repeatedly, including in three live presidential debates that will draw tens of millions of viewers.
Those viewers will come to know the candidates (or believe that they know the candidates) and draw their own conclusions and assessments.
Obviously, a candidate can’t ignore how his opponent defines him. Ads and messages in the free media create impressions with voters — impressions that a damaged candidate must try to change. Because it’s easier to create impressions than to change them, Romney can’t simply give his opponents a free hand in defining him.
But unlike Sen. John Kerry, who ignored attacks on his military record during his 2004 presidential campaign, Romney’s campaign has already demonstrated that it won’t hesitate to answer attacks. And the former Massachusetts governor certainly will have the time and resources to define himself (including at his party’s national convention) and to address the caricatures being drawn of him by his opponents. He need not panic.
Clearly, Romney will need to cross some threshold of acceptability as a potential president. Voters aren’t going to send just anyone to the White House. But when November rolls around, the question of who Romney is might not be nearly as important to voters as how well Obama has done.