06.26.11

Mitt Romney, Boring Genius?

The ex-governor's avoiding the press and struggling to connect with voters. Howard Kurtz on why the quietest campaign may be just the ticket for the plain-vanilla front-runner.

Mitt Romney is working hard at being boring—and it’s paying off.

The man almost universally described as a weak front-runner is avoiding the press, raising money, and staying out of the spotlight—all of which provides no compelling storyline other than the recycled ones about Romney’s varied vulnerabilities and past flip-flops.

And that suits his strategists just fine. They want to keep him out of the rough and tumble of the daily news cycle and focused on just one issue: fixing the economy. They firmly believe that nothing else will matter in 2012—not Romney’s personality, not his Massachusetts health-care plan, not whether he is ill at ease with working-class voters.

“There’s an underappreciation for the degree to which there’s a crisis out there,” says Stuart Stevens, Romney’s media adviser. “Speaking to that crisis is ultimately what people really care about.”

In fact, says Stevens, Romney had no plans to mount a second White House campaign until the economy plunged into a deep recession. That created the political space for a former venture capitalist who can claim to have created jobs (although he also axed some as a corporate takeover artist).

It’s not that Romney doesn’t have his share of liabilities. He is a former governor who supported abortion rights and gay rights and passed an ambitious plan that served as the model for President Obama's health-care law, which is despised by the GOP. Nearly a quarter of Americans, according to the latest Gallup poll, say they would not vote for a Mormon for president. And Romney is not exactly a natural politician.

By keeping his head down, avoiding gaffes, and turning in a confident performance at the CNN debate in New Hampshire, Romney has done nothing to hurt himself.

But his brain trust waves off the usual queries about tactics and controversies. They say that to engage in flap-of-the-day responses just takes them out of their game plan. They are so determined to steer clear of social issues that when The New York Times last week quoted rivals as assailing Romney for refusing to sign an anti-abortion pledge, his office refused to comment.

There are few deviations from this game plan. Beyond the occasional appearance with such safe hosts as Fox’s Sean Hannity and CNN’s Piers Morgan, Romney is granting no national interviews for now (the campaign turned down a request from The Daily Beast).

“There’s one big question: Who can put America back to work?” says Kevin Madden, an informal adviser who served as spokesman in Romney's 2008 campaign. Toward that end, “What’s the best way to get the most disciplined message directly to the electorate?”

The Romney camp’s answer is to post online videos (the latest is called “Obama’s Misery Index”), focus his occasional retail appearances on the 9 percent unemployment rate, and hit the same theme in targeted conversations with local reporters (“President Obama is on track to be the first president in history to ever leave office without creating any jobs,” Romney told the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for a story published the day Obama visited the city last week).

Of course, Romney’s Rose Garden strategy—without the requisite garden—can also be viewed as the overly cautious posture of a man who is afraid to make a mistake. That may work during spring training, but when the race heats up this fall, the press-avoidance approach will look timid if Romney’s rivals are fully engaged. Only then will we find out whether the retooled candidate can take a punch.

To the extent this strategy is working—an ABC News poll this month had Romney leading Obama among registered voters, 49 to 46 percent—he has had his share of luck. Potential rivals—Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump—have passed up the race. Tim Pawlenty has failed to get much traction. Most of the country doesn’t know who Jon Huntsman is.

Romney’s huge fundraising edge—he is expected to report taking in as much as $40 million for the last three months—will give him an enormous advantage over the likes of Pawlenty, some of whose aides are working on a volunteer basis. And money aside, if Romney winds up in a one-on-one contest with a Tea Party favorite such as Michele Bachmann, there isn’t much question who will seize the nomination.

As a plain-vanilla candidate, Romney is never going to win the excitement primary. A telling moment occurred when Sarah Palin stole the spotlight by taking her bus tour to New Hampshire on the day that Romney was officially kicking off his candidacy there. He lost the battle of the headlines as the Manchester Union Leader splashed Palin on the front page and ran Romney’s announcement inside the paper. But he remains the front-runner—though his staff recoils from the term—and she remains a long-shot celebrity with high negatives.

By keeping his head down, avoiding gaffes, and turning in a confident performance at the CNN debate in New Hampshire, Romney has done nothing to hurt himself. He is also skirting a potential embarrassment by blowing off August’s Iowa Straw Poll.

Still, many journalists are skeptical of Romney, viewing him as less than authentic in light of his past policy shifts.

     “He’s just not that much fun to cover,” says Republican strategist Rich Galen. “He’s always going to be in control of his language, his emotions, his policy positions.” But, says Galen, “he has many of the same team that he had four years ago, they know each other and they won't provide the kind of insider snipe gossip we all live by.”

When Romney mingles with voters, he sometimes draws mocking coverage. After the multimillionaire joked about being “unemployed” in a Tampa coffee shop, The Atlantic’s Josh Green called him a candidate “whose awkwardness is a thing to behold.” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote about Romney’s “weirdness,” describing it as “equal parts Leave It to Beaver corniness and social awkwardness.”

Such accounts are reminiscent of the media hazing that Obama got during the campaign when he talked about arugula in Iowa and bowled a 37 in a partial game in Pennsylvania. Romney associates say he is a light-hearted guy who can sometimes come off as goofy but that voters aren’t going to be distracted by such matters. They even embrace his squareness.

“When the White House changes hands, it tends to go to the person who represents the most clear-cut contrast to the incumbent on the issue that matters most,” Stevens says. Just as Barack Obama was the anti-Bush—and George W. Bush the anti-Clinton—Romney would be the plodding, straight-arrow businessman challenging the cool, inspirational speaker who had never run anything.

Madden sees Romney as having learned from his 2008 loss, using the analogy of a golfer who shanks the ball by gripping the club too tightly. “He’s not holding on as tight this time. The campaign doesn’t get knocked off its kilter very easily.”