Mitt Romney is entering a danger zone. Let's call it varmint-gate:
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is taking a second shot at describing his hunting experience.
The former Massachusetts governor has called himself a lifelong hunter, yet his campaign acknowledged that he has been on just two hunting trips one when he was 15 and the other just last year.
Campaigning in Indianapolis on Thursday, Romney said he has hunted small game since his youth.
"I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve made that very clear," he said. "I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will. I began when I was 15 or so and I have hunted those kinds of varmints since then. More than two times."
More than two times? What does that mean - three times?
This is all beginning to sound a lot like 2000. Let’s take a brief moment and recall what happened to Al Gore. Before the 2000 campaign, members of the press felt that Gore was a great big phony. If asked they might have been able to point to something specific, but mostly it was just a feeling, an impression that created the filter through which they saw everything Gore said or did until election day. The result was that Gore became the victim, and George W. Bush the beneficiary, of what may have been the most outrageous double standard in the history of campaign coverage. Bush could lie about matters large and small, and reporters would brush it off, because Bush was a reg’lar guy, and besides he wasn’t too smart. So if he said something that wasn’t true, it must have just been a mistake. They viewed Gore, on the other hand, as both smart and dishonest, so if anything he said could be interpreted as inaccurate, it was portrayed as a willful lie. He said in a debate, based on a newspaper article, that a girl in Sarasota has to stand in school because her class was overcrowded; the press immediately investigated, and when it was found that by the time the debate occurred, she had obtained a chair, Gore was accused of dissembling. Speaking before a union audience, he made a joke about hearing "Look for the Union Label" as a lullaby; though it was obviously a joke, and the audience laughed, the press swung into action and discovered that the song was written after Gore was an adult – another strike against him. And that’s not to mention the “invented the internet” brouhaha, which TAPPED readers know well Gore never said.
We could go on, of course (and if you’re interested, read Eric Boehlert’s definitive piece on the subject). But the point is that once reporters got locked in to the belief that Gore was a liar, he was screwed. Nothing he did could convince them otherwise, and everything that came out of his mouth was inspected with a fine tooth comb for signs of deception.
What varmint-gate does is offer reporters a vivid, somewhat amusing example they can use to drop into not-yet-written stories about how Romney is a phony. And those stories are coming. First, you have the simple fact that within the last couple of years, coincidentally right around the time he began preparing to run for president, Romney underwent a total transformation of his views on social issues, every element of which brought him in line with the conservative base. So he was already viewed with suspicion, his sincerity one of the factors reporters are primed to bring up in discussions of his "character." Then you have the lengths he’s going to convince voters that the transformation was real. It’s one thing to become a "life member" of the NRA after being a gun control supporter – that led to some chuckles. But his claim to have hunted all his life was not just silly and insincere, it was factually wrong, and absurdly so.
This is going to come back to haunt him. If he says anything else that sounds like a lie to ingratiate himself with the base, reporters are going to pounce. Once it reaches the point that Leno and Letterman are making jokes about it ("George W. Bush says the surge is working. Yeah – and Mitt Romney is a hunter!"), he’s in real trouble. Story after story is going to mention varmint-gate. That’s not to say Romney is doomed, not by a long shot. But this was always his biggest potential weakness, and he just made it much worse.