“I’m Mitt Romney, I believe in America, and I’m running for president of the United States.”
Minutes after Romney uttered those words Thursday at a well-choreographed campaign event in Stratham, New Hampshire, a reporter popped out of his seat and turned to his colleagues in the press section at the picturesque farm.
“Sarah Palin is in Portsmouth!” he announced.
Several journalists looked up from their laptops.
“Portsmouth?” one asked, incredulously. “Yeah, just 20 minutes from here.”
“Does anyone know where in Portsmouth?” someone inquired, squinting at his BlackBerry in pursuit of a lead.
“Is that where her clambake is supposed to be?” another asked.
“I love it!” exclaimed a giddy photographer as the group began buzzing with excitement. “We get to have some fun again!”
And with that, a significant portion of America’s political press corps packed up their things, headed for their cars, and left the site where the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican primaries had just declared his candidacy–all because a Fox News celebrity was planning to eat shellfish nearby.
If you’re a member of Team Romney, you’ve probably been channeling Rodney Dangerfield lately: You don’t get no respect. By all accounts, Romney should be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. He has led in every New Hampshire poll since 2009, leads in Iowa, and continues to top most national polls.
He has a vast, well-organized ground game in every battleground state. He has high name recognition, impeccable economic credentials, and a seemingly endless network of rich friends who make fundraising a cinch.
He is, in other words, the very definition of a “frontrunner.” And yet, every time a pundit attaches that title to his name, it is preceded by some undermining adjective like “nominal” or “flawed” or “supposed.”
“I think the media fuels this speculation because they don’t want him to run against Obama. They know he can win.”
The tepid reception isn’t the media’s alone. Republicans throughout the country are scrambling to find someone – anyone – to take Romney’s place as their party’s candidate. Just this week, a group of Iowa businessmen trekked to New Jersey and begged Governor Chris Christie to jump in the race. (He said no – again. ) Meanwhile, down South, grassroots activists are calling on Texas Governor Rick Perry to reconsider his long-held opposition to running in 2012. And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced Thursday during his own visit to the Granite State that he’s considering another presidential bid.
Even at Romney’s campaign stops, the support sometimes seems lukewarm. Last month, for example, Romney spoke to a group of College Republicans at UNLV in Las Vegas, dispensing career advice as they dined on cheeseburgers from In-and-Out. The attendees happily engaged the candidate, but he left them unconvinced. One student, asked by reporters whether he was planning to vote for Romney in the primary, said he was “keeping his options open.” He wanted to take another look at Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.
The reasons for the conservative dissatisfaction with Romney have been repeated over and again by the political media: his support for an individual health-insurance mandate in Massachusetts is too similar to “Obamacare”; he has flip-flopped on issues like abortion; he lacks a certain Obama-esque likability. All this adds up to a weak frontrunner who will struggle to make it out of the primary – or so the conventional wisdom holds.
But at some point, Romney’s supporters argue, these observations become nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies. Matt Kirincic, co-founder of Students for Mitt, says liberal reporters seem more interested than conservative voters in Romney’s supposed primary obstacles. “I think the media fuels this speculation because they don’t want him to run against Obama,” Kirincic said. “They know he can win.”
Back in New Hampshire, the campaign kickoff had all the markings of an event planned by political pros. Benign American classics – like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” – seeped inoffensively out of the speakers, while volunteers doled out bowls of “Mrs. Romney’s famous chili.” And when a strong wind sent plastic spoons, Frito chips, and discarded chili bowls flying through the air, the mess was contained with swift, corporate efficiency.
Romney’s speech was acutely crafted to downplay his weaknesses as a candidate – he called his health-care plan “not perfect” but a “state solution to a state problem” – and trumpet his record as a successful businessman and fiscal conservative. He also delivered some sharp jabs at President Obama, whom he accused of failing America when it comes to economic issues.
“You know, if you want to create jobs, it helps to have had a job,” Romney said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “And I have.”
But while his supporters at the Stratham farm waved their American flags and cheered on their candidate, many viewers watching from home didn’t get to see the end of his remarks. Fox News cut away from Romney’s relatively short speech to cover – of all things – congressional Democrats’ budget meeting at the White House.
As Rodney Dangerfield would say, “I get no respect, I tell ya.”
McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.