FREMONT, Calif. — Politics often feels like a carnival sideshow. Thursday was one of those days.
Mitt Romney and aides to President Obama held competing news conferences on opposite sides of the nation, each aimed at establishing a layered and damaging narrative about the opponent and illustrating why he is incompetent to right the nation’s economy.
The events were a small preview of a general election battle that will be waged in person and on airwaves across the nation. But they also showed how easy it can be for the message of a political campaign to be subsumed.
By the end of the day, both campaigns’ careful planning had gone awry, and that was before the events were relegated to the news cycle’s undercard thanks to a deadlocked jury in the John Edwards corruption trial.
Romney, in the midst of a California swing dedicated largely to fundraising, made a secretive visit to the shuttered headquarters of Solyndra, a solar energy firm that went bankrupt after receiving a $535-million loan guarantee approved by the Obama administration.
“It’s a symbol not of success but of failure. It’s also a symbol of a serious conflict of interest,” Romney told reporters as he stood across the street from the glass building, reiterating a Republican charge that the firm received the loan guarantee because one of its largest investors was a major fundraiser for Obama.
“Free enterprise to the president means taking money from the taxpayers and giving it freely to his friends,” Romney said.
But much of the attention given to the Romney appearance had less to do with his message and more to do with the unusually secretive nature of the event, reminiscent of clandestine presidential trips to unsafe regions around the world. (One could argue that the Bay Area, a bastion of liberalism, would qualify as a hostile region to a GOP presidential candidate.)
The campaign sought to closely guard knowledge of the event. Reporters, who typically receive advance notice about where and when campaign events will occur, were told to gather Thursday morning in a hotel parking lot in Redwood City for a bus trip to an undisclosed location.
The plan didn’t really work — rumors had circulated on Wednesday that Romney would head to Solyndra, and at least seven satellite trucks were awaiting his arrival. And it is hard for a candidate to be subtle when he travels in a motorcade that includes Secret Service agents, California Highway Patrol officers and a large bus emblazoned with his name.
A person affiliated with the campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Romney’s operation didn’t want to provide advance notice of the event because of fears that either the Obama administration or people affiliated with Solyndra would try to stop it from taking place. That was a charge Romney reiterated when reporters asked him about the cloak-and-dagger morning.
“This ought to be a big story, and I think there are a number of people among the president’s team who don’t want that story to get out,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it did.”
Some argued that Romney had a more strategic reason for keeping the event secret — avoiding throngs of protesters from nearby San Francisco. One needed only to look to Boston on Thursday to see what can happen when the other side gets wind of a rival’s plans.
The Obama campaign had called a news conference at the statehouse to pick apart Romney’s record on job creation and budgeting during his tenure as Massachusetts governor. The event marked the opening of a new front in Obama’s battle to define Romney, still relatively unknown to some voters.
“Mitt Romney never understood what government was all about,” said John Barrett, former mayor of North Adams, Mass. “Government is not about PowerPoint presentations; it’s about helping people — and not just some of the people.”
But he strained to speak above the chants of Romney supporters. Word of the event had leaked out early, giving the Romney campaign time to stage its own preemptive news conference and bring supporters to the scene.
As mayors and state officials blasted Romney’s record, Romney supporters could be heard loudly chanting “We want Mitt!” and “Where are the jobs?”
At times the chanters nearly drowned out the speakers, who included top Obama advisor David Axelrod.
Axelrod answered the hecklers with a pointed reminder of a Romney campaign aide’s recent statement that the positions he took in the primary would be erased in the coming general election, as if with a child’s toy: “You can shout down speakers, my friends, but it’s hard to Etch-A-Sketch away the truth.”
Across the country, Romney defended his raucous supporters.
“At some point you say, ‘You know what, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,’ ” he said. “If they’re going to be heckling us, why, we’re not going to sit back and play by very different rules.”
Axelrod, for his part, called the scene part of “the great pageant of democracy.”
To be sure, there is plenty of pageantry in presidential campaign, but it rarely involves such a raucous collision so early in the race. But Thursday may just have ushered in a summer of mudslinging.
Mehta reported from Fremont and Hennessey from Washington.