Sloppy Seconds

Is Mitt Romney Damaged Goods After a Brutal Primary Season?

Romney’s badly scarred from his bitter primary fight. Eleanor Clift on whether he can refurbish his image.

Now that the GOP race is effectively over, just how damaged is Mitt Romney?

Republicans had hoped that a long primary contest would energize voters and excite them about the fall campaign. Instead, Romney seems to be the suitor his party doesn’t quite want, blamed for the party’s failure to win women and Hispanics, caricatured for his flip-flops, and facing an uphill struggle to build a winning coalition.

Romney’s negatives reached a record high last month with 50 percent of all voters, and 52 percent of registered voters, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll that reflected a dim view of him as a prospective president. A Gallup “Swing States” survey shows President Obama leading Romney 51 to 42 percent, and among women 52 to 35 percent—a huge gender gap.

These numbers are daunting, but Romney is in better shape than Bill Clinton in 1992, or Ronald Reagan in 1980, says Sam Popkin, a political-science professor at the University of California at San Diego. Clinton was called unelectable, and after winning the nomination, he was running third in the polls behind Texas billionaire Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush. Reagan was seen as so vulnerable because of his age and cowboy image (“Governor Reagan can’t start a war, President Reagan can”) that party leaders talked about putting former president Gerald Ford on the ticket to prop him up; instead Reagan had to take Bush, his biggest rival, to placate the party.

The choice of Bush as Reagan’s running mate looks inspired now through the lens of history, but at the time it was an essential step in the rehab and recovery process every nominee goes through after a bruising primary battle. Romney has been on the couch for months with the media analyzing his every perceived shortcoming, but the central rationale for his candidacy remains unshaken, says Popkin. “Nothing has taken away the fact that he is a world-class business executive, and if he can convince the voters that’s what we need without having to slash Medicare, he’ll be a strong candidate.”

Clinton dealt with questions about his character and capacity to govern by sanctioning a “Manhattan Project” to remake his image as “The Man from Hope.” Clinton’s story of how he overcame a challenging home environment countered the portrait promoted by his opponents of a draft-dodging ’60s hippie. That kind of remake is not readily available to Romney, “a man who can’t reveal himself,” says Democratic consultant James Carville. Romney’s privileged childhood, his time at Bain Capital, and his years as governor are all off-limits. “So what’s left? So what’s his story?” asks Carville. “There isn’t anyone who doubts he’s a good family man, but so is Obama. Where’s the contrast?”

Carville famously said in ’92, “It’s the economy, stupid,” a line as true now as it was then. An economy that was in the doldrums allowed Clinton to send Bush packing after one term, and if today’s fragile economy takes another downturn, Romney is well positioned to take advantage of bad news. “He’ll never generate the excitement or enthusiasm to win a really close election, but he can win if economic conditions turn bad,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He’s just bland, and that can be a plus” if the economy worsens. Like the Democrats’ ’88 nominee, Michael Dukakis, whom Mario Cuomo dubbed “polenta,” Romney is a competent technocrat, “absorbing the flavor of anything you put him in,” says Sabato.

Romney told newspaper editors in Washington on Wednesday that the choice in November “will not be one of party or personality,” but the Obama campaign is not going to let him shed his party’s baggage so easily. “The easy way out is to blame Romney [for falling short as a candidate], but if people saw the party on the move and ready to govern again, he’d be way over the bar,” says Popkin, author of the forthcoming book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win–and Hold– the White House.

Obama seemed to be borrowing a page from Popkin when he spoke to the Associated Press convention on Tuesday, mentioning Romney by name for the first time as his likely opponent, and tying him to Republican Paul Ryan’s budget—which reinforces tax cuts for top earners while cutting discretionary programs for the poor and spending on education, clean energy, and infrastructure. “Truman didn’t win on the whistle stop tour; he won in Congress when he gave Taft [the Republican Senate leader] the rope to hang Dewey with,” says Popkin. Dewey was an East Coast progressive while Ohio senator Robert Taft led the GOP’s conservative wing, a division within the party that Truman exploited and which serves as a template for Obama.

There will be plenty of strategizing on both sides in the months ahead, but the president and his challenger are hostage to events that occur outside the campaign. Asked what he would have done differently after Jimmy Carter lost in a landslide to Reagan, media adviser Jerry Rafshoon said he wouldn’t have spent $30 million on television ads; he would have bought three more helicopters. In his view, a botched hostage-rescue mission in Iran sealed Carter’s fate.

Romney is a plausible president by any measure, and whether he reaches the Oval Office will hinge on factors mainly out of his control, along with the willingness of voters to give him a second look after a disastrous primary season.