O’REILY BATTLES

12.19.11

Romney Vs. O’Reilly

The candidate stops stiffing the press—is it working?

Mitt Romney continued his media blitz on Monday night by venturing onto the Factor.

In a sitdown with Bill O’Reilly, Mitt recacted calmly when the host declared that he was “going to the right,” that “a lot of conservatives don’t trust you” and that “they think you’re a phony.” He didn’t even push back when O’Reilly said he’d been a moderate in Massachusetts. Romney did say he’d been “simply wrong” on abortion and declined to take Bill-O’s bait and call Obama a “socialist,” retreating to the familiar he’s-in-over-his head.

It was Romney’s second appearance on Fox News in two days. On Sunday he actually looked, well, something bordering on emotional.

He was on Fox News Sunday when Chris Wallace asked about his wife’s battle with multiple sclerosis. “Probably the toughest time in my life was—was standing there with Ann as we hugged each other and the diagnosis came,” Romney said. “And I was afraid it was Lou Gehrig’s disease….And [the doctor] stepped out of the room, and we stood up and hugged each other, and I said to her, ‘As long as it’s not something fatal, I’m just fine. Look, I’m happy in life as long as I’ve got my soulmate with me.’”

Will that exchange move any votes in Iowa? Maybe not. But the appearance—Romney’s first on a Sunday show in 20 months--gave the candidate a chance to talk about more than health care mandates and his record at Bain Capital.

For the past year, the former Massachusetts governor has kept the press at bay, entering what’s been dubbed the Mittness Protection Program. It was a cautious, front-runner’s strategy designed to sit on his lead and avoid mistakes. It also made a man accused of being “robotic” and “buttoned up,” as Wallace put it, feel remote and unable to connect with voters.

A few weeks ago, Romney refused to cooperate with a Time cover story and wound up with the headline, “Why Don’t They Like Me?” He refused to play ball with a New York Times Magazine cover piece as well, granting access only to the softer-focus Parade.

The fact is, voters want to see presidential contenders answer tough questions, and Romney had gotten rusty, as was evident by his testy reaction to an aggressive series of issue questions by Fox’s Bret Baier.

Now Romney is conducting something of a media blitz, and the reason his obvious: he’s no longer the front runner. The Newt surge was threatening to leave him in the dust. Miraculously, he suddenly became available to Politico, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

He began to build a case for himself. With Politico, he said he would not be throwing red meat at the conservative base: “That’s not who I am…I’m not going to say outrageous things.” With the Times, he adopted the Z-word that reporter Jeff Zeleny floated about Gingrich: “Zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio. It’s great in print, it makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader.”

With Wallace, Romney easily finessed questions about why he’s not offering the rich a bigger tax cut (“The wealthy are doing just fine”), not pushing to abolish Cabinet departments (“I’m just going to make sure we study them”) and why he made health insurance compulsory in Massachusetts (“it was right for our state”). He handles himself well, if a little stiffly, in these sessions, making you wonder what he’s been afraid of.

Romney has passed up a ton of free media, as it’s called, by refusing these interviews. Of course, he’s yet to venture outside the relatively friendly confines of Fox. If you see Romney on with Rachel Maddow, you’ll know he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win the nomination.