President Barack Obama answers a reporter's question in the Rose...

President Barack Obama answers a reporter's question in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (March 23, 2012) Credit: AP

Whenever a surprise interrupts the usual political discourse, an unwritten protocol seems to kick in. And three times in a less than a week, presidential candidates showed us how that drill works.

The public learned little about the nature of the candidates that we did not or could not already know. But these candid audio and video moments stirred media and Web interest just the same -- along with fodder for negative campaign ads.

Start with the most consequential case, since it involved the incumbent.


Stage 1:

Comment caught on tape

"This is my last election," President Barack Obama was inadvertently recorded telling Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's outgoing president, the other day. "After my election, I have more flexibility." They were talking about negotiating the controversial circumstances of U.S. missile systems in Europe.


Stage 2:

Criticism from rivals

"An alarming and troubling development," GOP candidate Mitt Romney says. "I don't think he can recover from it . . . we're going to keep it alive and awake." Newt Gingrich wonders what else the president is planning for -- after the citizens can no longer vote against him.


Stage 3:

Damage-control attempt

Obama says he's already "on record" as wishing to reach a deal on missile stockpiles and insists the statements were consistent with his past public remarks on the topic.


Stage 4:

Earlier impressions


If you thought presidential elections don't affect touchy foreign negotiations, just look up the 1968 peace talks on Vietnam and that year's campaign. Are you surprised Obama had expediency in mind?

Romney faced his own four stages last week when adviser Eric Fehrnstrom answered a question on CNN about the candidate being forced to tack right in primaries. "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."

Stage 2 fallout followed. A Democratic National Committee spokeswoman said Romney will "say or do absolutely anything." GOP rival Rick Santorum spoke against "taking a risk of what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future." Romney replied in Stage 3: "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.

But shifting emphasis from primary to general is routine strategy even if saying so is not.

Santorum's four-step began Monday. When a reporter cited a truncated quote of his earlier speech attacking Romney, Santorum flared: "What speech did you listen to? . . . Stop lying! I said he was the worst Republican to run on the issue of Obamacare . . ." And then he hurled an on-camera profanity.

A Romney spokeswoman said Santorum "is becoming increasingly shrill as his campaign hopes fade." Santorum told Fox News: "It was just one of these harassing moments, and after having answered the question a few times, sort of comes back with the same old question, the same old spin. I just said, 'OK, I've had enough of this you-know-what.' "

Again, no great revelation. Santorum has displayed pique in the past.

Whether the next one proves to be a snit, gaffe, or indiscretion, expect to see it on a screen near you, with standard follow-up.


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