As he heads into another dreary week of campaigning and primary voting, former governor Mitt Romney is still looking for that game-changing moment that will transform him from the guy with the most delegates in his pocket to a dynamic frontrunner able to energize and inspire the GOP base.
Romney, no doubt, is tired of hearing all the carping from his rivals and the media that he is a humorless rich guy incapable of connecting with average voters -- a Massachusetts moderate masquerading as a conservative and a politician lacking any core beliefs who has flip-flopped more times than Charlie the Tuna. At the midpoint of this protracted and grueling contest, Romney leads the pack in delegates and money. But he is once again locked into a close contest with Santorum in today’s Illinois primary. And he is stuck in a public relations tar pit that is fueling talk about a possible brokered GOP convention in Tampa this summer if Santorum, Gingrich and Paul can somehow deny him a majority of delegates before then.
So what do the experts think he can do to salvage his campaign? We turned to a panel of experts on politics and policy for a list of “do’s and don’ts” for Romney’s flailing campaign. Here’s what they came up with:
Get Out of the Dog House
Okay, let’s begin with Romney’s most serious political crisis – living down the media uproar over his treatment of poor Seamus, the family Irish Setter, who was strapped in his carrier atop the Romney family Chevrolet station wagon for a 12-hour trek to a family cottage in Ontario way back in 1983.
Unfortunately for Romney, his son, Tagg, recounted the incident to the Boston Globe in 2007. Now Romney is berated as an insensitive lout by dog lovers and bloggers and is the butt of almost nightly jokes by late-night host David Letterman. So what to do?
Washington Republican political consultant Ron Bonjean says Romney “needs to use some self-depreciating humor as a weapon to disarm the critics” and “to let the air out of the tires on that perception” of insensitivity.
Bonjean says that Romney could joke that, whatever people think about the dog on the roof incident, it was much better than the scene in the National Lampoon movie “Vacation” in which Chevy Chase tied the family dog to the rear bumper of his station wagon during a cross-country trip.
Others believe fervently that the less said about the dog the better, and that the gaffe prone Romney would be barking up the wrong tree by trying address the flap head on. “When you defend, you are losing,” said former Senate Republican senior adviser Steve Bell. “Yes, deflection with humor can work and he has clever folks to help him do that. Unfortunately, he is far from a natural with humor.” Washington attorney Jan Baran, a Republican expert on campaign finance and strategy, urged Romney to completely ignore the controversy and focus on more important things. “Don’t complain. Don’t explain. Just solider on,” Baran told the Fiscal Times
Scrap the Green-Eye Shade Strategy
It’s hard to dispute that, short of some cataclysmic event, Romney is on track to accumulate the 1,144 delegates necessary to lock up the GOP nomination by late spring. Romney holds twice as many delegates as his nearest rival, Santorum, and continues to rack up a third or more of delegates in most of the remaining primaries because of the party’s proportional distribution rules.
But, Romney’s recurring theme that “math is on my side” is doing little to excite his base. Santorum jumped all over a Romney aide’s comment that “it’s going to take some sort of act of God” for Santorum or Gingrich to overcome Romney in the race. Experts say Romney should do what he does best – sharply critique Obama’s policies and leadership skills.
“Talking about math is exceedingly uninspiring and it reinforces the view that Romney is achieving only a technical KO,” says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. “Romney should wave farewell to the primary campaign with a statement like this: ‘It's now clear to most reasonable people that I will be the GOP nominee. . . Our mission is of the highest importance--to defeat President Obama before he can do even greater harm over the next four years.”
Political writer Elaine Povich adds that the patrician Romney is hurting himself by posturing to voters as he did last week in trying unsuccessfully to woo conservative Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi. “Mitt Romney should stop trying to be something he's not,” Povich said. “The latest "I like cheesy grits" episode is emblematic, but there have been many other examples -- like ‘I like to shoot varmints, etc.”
Lighten Up About Your Net Worth
Romney is not the first candidate to deal with this problem, but something in the water in modern Massachusetts must make politicians unable to cope with their wealth. Democratic Sen. John Kerry hurt his presidential bid against President George W. Bush in 2004 by going windsurfing during a break in campaigning -- which is not the common man's sport.
Romney, with a net worth of more than $250 million, showed a trace of irritation last week when Fox News host Megyn Kelly pressed him on the question of whether his wealth makes him out of touch with Americans. “Megyn, guess what, I made a lot of money,” he said. “I’ve been very successful. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Not good. Our experts counseled Romney to take a page from the careers of other wealthy politicians and find some humor in his riches. President John F. Kennedy joked about his multi-millionaire father's willingness to pay big money for a victory, recounting his father’s line that "I don't mind buying the election but I'll be damned if I'll pay for a landslide!"
And former Massachusetts governor William Weld, an heir to one of his state’s great family fortunes, loved to joke about his wealth as well. When state Senate president Billy Bulger publicly teased Weld about his ancestors having come over on the Mayflower, Weld replied, “Actually, they weren’t on the Mayflower. They sent the servants over first to get the cottage ready.
Make a Virtue of Your Bain Capital Experience
Early in the campaign, Romney was bloodied by Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others who portrayed him as a former “corporate raider” who pursued profits even if that meant major layoffs at companies his firm controlled.
The controversy over his years at Bain Capital appears to have died down. But Steve Bell and a handful of other Republican strategists believe that Romney should try harder to translate his years of experience as a private equity investor at Bain Capital into a campaign plus.
According to Bell, Romney should stress that most of his work was on behalf of pension funds, and mutual funds – institutions overwhelmingly representing individuals, university endowments, pensions -- the things that impact the average working man and woman.”
Bell said that Romney should say, “When we did well, we were doing well for those institutions. We were, in turn, doing well for their constituents. . . . If we had failed, we would have been failing a lot of 401(k)s, a lot of future retirees, and a lot of universities.”
Find Your Campaign Voice
Arguably, one of Romney’s better moments in the campaign was his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire primary in January. “Americans know that our future is brighter and better than these troubled times,” he told cheering supporters.”We still believe in the hope, the promise, and the dream of America. We still believe in that shining city on a hill.”
Since then, many have complained about the former governor’s increasingly desultory rhetoric that sounds wooden and uninspiring compared with Santorum’s more emotional and idealistic speeches focusing on his religious faith, the evils of government intrusion on Americans’ lives and the economic plight of blue-collar America.
“The most important thing facing Mitt Romney is that he has nothing to say to the American public,” says veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “That’s the really truly sad thing, that when you look, and there he is out there, and he can only talk about momentum or delegates or whatever else. You think there isn’t a driving dream, there isn’t something that you say, boy, you can just feel it.”
Many of the experts say that Romney must focus more on a message than tactics and try to find a voice that once again connects with voters. Some note that even a stiff like Richard M. Nixon was able to overcome his distance from voters with the right coaching, so Romney should be able to do it as well.
Romney may have gotten the message, because over the weekend he started connecting with women and families struggling to keep up with soaring gas prices. “You’ve got moms that are driving their kids to school and practice after school and other appointments and wonder how they can afford putting gasoline in the car, at the same time putting food on the table night after night,” he said at a pancake breakfast in Moline, Ill.
Show Some Spine
Let’s face it, there’s nothing Romney can do to win the affection of his party’s most conservative members, try though he may. He has twisted himself into a pretzel by parsing and disavowing important elements of his record as governor, especially on health care reform and abortion, but that will do little to appease his party’s far right wing, which has rallied around Santorum and Gingrich to a lesser extent.
So why doesn’t he stop running from his record and stand up to his critics? Former New York Times economics writer Edmund L. Andrews says he would urge the former Massachusetts governor to “stand up and be willing to say ‘no’ on something to the Republican base.
“Romney lacks credibility because he tries too hard to please whoever seems crucial to winning an election,” Andrews notes. He has reversed himself on abortion, immigration and health care reform -- or at least on the issue of an individual mandate to have insurance. For practical purposes, he is at least as conservative as Ronald Reagan was and as any other GOP candidate. But people don't believe him, because he's always trying to please.
So: The next time someone like Rush Limbaugh says something inexcusable – such as calling a Georgetown University Law Center student a “slut” for advocating free mandated contraceptives at the university -- denounce it forcefully, Andrews suggests. Don’t just smirk and say "I wouldn't have said that."