Last updated: May 30, 2012 11:46 pm

‘Surrogates’ prove risky for presidential campaigns

Donald Trump and Mitt Romney©Getty

When Donald Trump hosted Mitt Romney at a glittering fundraiser at his Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, he was everything an aspiring president could want in an ally. Almost.

Mr Trump was flattering. “He’s going to be a great president,” he said of Mr Romney. He was also a money magnet, raising about $2m in donations from about 200 people.

Mr Romney was gracious, thanking his host for the event at “this beautiful hotel and with so many friends”. He added: “I appreciate your help.”

But Mr Trump also brought his own baggage with him to Las Vegas, having generated a political brouhaha that overshadowed the event.

Before the fundraiser, Mr Trump had repeated fringe assertions that Barack Obama is not really American, and therefore not qualified to lead the country. “There are many questions from different sides as to the authenticity of the birth certificate,” Mr Trump said on CNN earlier on Tuesday.

Although the Romney campaign has sought to distance itself from Mr Trump’s conspiracy theories, the Republican candidate has continued to hold the celebrity property mogul – and his money-raising abilities – close.

With his television celebrity thanks to his hit show The Apprentice, Mr Trump also has a significant amount of appeal to average Joes, especially blue-collar whites, a group that Mr Romney has difficulty resonating with.

The Trump case highlights the dangers for both Mr Romney and Mr Obama in using official and self-appointed “surrogates” – the practice of deploying others to promote their message on television news, part of a strategy to keep the base enthused and to reach distinct groups of voters.

“The proliferation of 24-hour news channels has led to the proliferation of campaigns scrambling to fill the space,” said Brent Littlefield, a Republican strategist who often appears on cable channels to talk about politics.

“And when you’re scrambling, you’ve got to take the good with the bad. You run the risk that if that person does something or has a personal failing, it could come back to hurt the campaign.”

Andres Ramirez, a Democratic strategist in Nevada who regularly speaks for the party, says that this trend has been amplified by ubiquitous video cameras. “Surrogates have always played a part in campaigns, but what has changed is technology. Now the slip-ups are much better chronicled,” he said.

Both campaigns rely heavily on official surrogates, but they also fall victim to statements by people not officially sent out by the campaign, but associated with them because of their previous support or affiliations.

Mr Obama’s re-election campaign cut loose Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist who caused a political furore when she said that Ann, Mr Romney’s wife and a mother of five, had “never worked a day in her life”.

More recently, the Obama campaign ordered Cory Booker, the high profile mayor of Newark, New Jersey, to perform an abrupt about-turn after he called its attacks on Mr Romney’s business record “nauseating”.

In addition to Mr Trump and his “birther” views, Mr Romney’s team has had to contend with the likes of Ted Nugent, a 70s rock star and gun rights proponent who endorsed the Republican candidate during the crucial Michigan primary, which Mr Romney won.

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But the campaign later repudiated Mr Nugent’s comments that Mr Obama ran an “evil, America-hating administration” and voters should “chop their heads off in November”.

Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst specialising in news broadcasting, blamed journalists, not the campaigns, for scraping the barrel to fill the airwaves. “There is no evidence that any of these side characters who are just walking on to a stage and off again are orchestrated by the campaign,” he said. Nevertheless, the campaigns are seizing on rivals’ gaffes to make their points.

The Rosen incident “was not a story at all”, Mr Tyndall said. “It was generated by the Romney campaign because they were having huge trouble with women voters and they were looking for a way to make Ann Romney more prominent.”

Indeed, Richard Wald, a former CBS News producer who now teaches journalism at Columbia University, said the big winner from the latest furore might be Mr Trump himself. “Donald Trump represents Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s interest in being talked about,” he said.

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