Top Romney Aide Gets a Case of the Shakes, Stirs Up Rivals

Much has gone well lately for front-running Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. On Tuesday, March 20, he scored a convincing win in the Illinois primary, and the next day he won a key endorsement from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Then came another campaign gaffe, only this time it wasn’t something that Romney said (like "my wife drives a couple of Cadillacs"). This time, it was senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom who slipped up. When asked on Wednesday by CNN whether Romney had been forced to adopt conservative positions in a tough race that could affect his standing with moderates in a general election, Fehrnstrom said, "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."

While the Romney camp wished they could wipe the comment clean from the record, rival candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich pounced, holding up the iconic toy at public events while claiming that Fehrnstrom’s statement shows that Romney shifts positions on the issues to suit his political needs. Even the Democrats got in on the story, quickly creating a political ad featuring an animated Etch A Sketch.

You have to feel for Fehrnstrom here—no doubt he was filled with adrenaline after the Illinois victory and the Bush endorsement, and got caught up in the moment. As the New York Times pointed out, this was a "rare misstep for a normally disciplined communications strategist."

Ferhnstrom later backtracked, saying that he was referring to the campaign as a whole, while Romney tried to put a different spin on his aide’s statement: "Organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile," Romney said. "The issues I am running on will be exactly the same. I am running as a conservative Republican...The policies and positions are the same."

On the flip side, Ohio Art, maker of the 50-year-old iconic toy, was all-too-pleased to keep the conversation going. After all, publicity is publicity. Ohio Art issued a response to the flap to Fortune's Term Sheet blog: "Happy to see Etch A Sketch, an American classic toy, is drawing attention with political candidates as a cultural icon and important piece of our society. A profound toy, highly recognized and loved by all, is now shaking up the national debate. Nothing is as quintessentially American as Etch A Sketch and a good old-fashioned political debate." The company went on to say that it hoped the flap would spike sales in the product.

Which goes to show you: A campaign’s pain is a toy maker’s pleasure.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01

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About Scott Van Camp

Scott Van Camp is editor of PR News, an executive-level, reader-supported publication that helps enhance the business impact of PR. Scott has a rich background in both journalism and PR/marketing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer/editor at various consumer and trade publications. Scott was with VNU Business Publications for five years, including stints as managing editor at IQ News and Technology Marketing magazines and senior editor at Brandweek. In the PR/marketing sphere, he has served as corporate communications manager at MarketBridge, a marketing and sales consultancy, and as editorial director for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. While at the Council, Scott led several high-profile marketing research projects. He has also operated his own communications and media consulting firm, SVC Communications.

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