At a rally in Michigan today, Mitt Romney made a birth certificate joke, much to the pleasure of the audience. This is going to create a stir.
To me, it reinforces something I've been worrying about for months now: that Romney has no game plan for controlling the ugly side of the conservative base this fall.
You may recall that John McCain had some trouble with this four years ago. His campaign had to start confiscating incendiary signage and shirts at the entrance to campaign events, and aggressively silence and evict those who shouted "socialist" and worse. Those policy changes didn't happen in a vacuum; it came after increasingly alarming and common incidents.
Anyone who thinks that we're not in for the exact same thing, or worse, doesn't pay enough attention to the movement conservative marketplace. Read some of the books on the bestseller list this year, and listen to talk radio -- and chat with some ordinary, rank-and-file, church-going, liberty-loving conservatives. They believe some really dramatically scary stuff about what four more years of President Obama would mean.
It has seemed clear for some time that the Romney campaign, like the Bush '04 campaign, believes that its best strategy is a focus on turnout rather than persuasion. That is, there will be more of a payoff in getting the conservative base more energetic about voting, than in trying to win over the middle-of-the-road undecided voters.
That's fine. But the campaign needs a strategy, for its own sake, to keep the hostile emotions of those conservatives in check. And I get no sense that it has any such strategy at all.
Today's comment from Romney sure makes it look like I'm right. It's not that I think Romney went out there intending to whip up trouble -- it's that if he and his staff had been having the kind of conversations I'm talking about, he would have been aware enough to stop himself.
The coming week in Tampa will be interesting to watch in this respect. Will we see, as in the past, delegates raining down boos and insults upon Andrea Mitchell and other lamestream media members? Will they spout birtherisms and worse on camera, and on pins? Will we see something equivalent to the "purple heart Band-Aids" of the 2004 convention? And how will the Romney campaign deal with it?