Mitt Romney speaks to the media after a town hall meeting in Arbutus, Md. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington —
Mitt Romney had hoped to avoid dealing with the Etch-A-Sketch question at his only public event Wednesday afternoon, a town hall meeting in Maryland.
But, about half an hour after Romney pointedly told a reporter along the ropeline that he would not be taking questions, reporters were summoned for a quick Q&A.
There was only one "Q," and the candidate knew what it would be.
PHOTOS: Romney's Etch-A-Sketch issue
"First, I just want to tell you, what a great night last night," Romney said after reappearing in a then largely empty American Legion Hall. He was referring to his double-digit victory in Illinois, a win that, coupled with the morning endorsement from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, should have driven the campaign narrative for the week.
"You don't need to cover any of this," he continued. "But boy was that fun."
It was a sheepish acknowledgment that, indeed, Etch-A-Sketch had taken hold.
In the short term, though, Romney's rivals will probably continue to revel in the gaffe of campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom. If you're Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, there's not much more to say, given math that shows Romney with twice as many delegates.
But the real potential damage is beyond the primary fight. Democrats have long been working to paint Romney as a candidate without a core, hammering every perceived inconsistency and working to ensure that every position he took in the primary fight to endear himself with conservatives would be held against him in the general election.
The concern is that after clinching the nomination, Romney would begin to nuance some of those positions -- on women's health, on illegal immigration, among others -- to appeal to more moderate swing voters in the fall.
So the real damage done by Fehrnstrom's comment could be that it forced Romney at this relatively late stage in the nomination fight to state before the cameras that he would not seek the "reset" his campaign suggested.
"The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican," Romney said.
At any point in the fall, if the Obama campaign senses any massaging of his earlier positions, they now have the perfect image to respond to. What windsurfing was to John Kerry, Etch-A-Sketch could be to Romney in a 30-second TV ad.
With the candidate having addressed it, Romney's campaign is already trying to turn the page. They launched a new television advertisement Thursday morning called "Conservative Record." Airing in Wisconsin, which votes April 3, it touts his record as Massachusetts governor in "wiping out a $3-billion deficit."
Romney is heading this week to Louisiana, which votes Saturday, and where Santorum is a favorite.
Etch-A-Sketch moment could haunt Mitt Romney in the fall