Two days before a single vote has been cast, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is oozing confidence.
Not necessarily about beating his rivals in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday (though that is a distinct possibility), but about winning the whole shebang: not only the Republican nomination, but ultimately, the White House.
“We’re in a completely different stage,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s senior strategist and image consultant, argued to a couple of reporters in the back of a meeting hall in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Sunday evening, as his shirt-sleeved, blue-jeaned candidate mingled briskly with likely caucus-goers. “I haven’t seen polling on this, but most Republicans think Obama is going to lose. And most of these people”—he gestured at the crowd—“think Mitt Romney’s going to be the next president. So a lot of people are coming to see somebody who’s going to be the next president.”
Presidential adviser-to-be Stevens mused expansively: “I think that’s a different feeling than it was a month go. It’s just a natural thing as the race takes shape.”
But, wait a minute, wasn’t that dangerous talk before actual voters have actually voted? Wasn’t the former Massachusetts governor’s guru tempting the vengeful gods of politics by venturing into territory once occupied by Mark Penn? Hillary Clinton’s 2008 “chief strategist” preached the doctrine of inevitability, only to be accused of arrogance and proven beyond all doubt to be less than impressive in the prophecy department.
“That’s just such a frightening thought,” Stevens replied after a moment’s hesitation, “I can’t even understand it.”
The candidate’s wife of 42 years, Ann Romney, who has been introducing her high school sweetheart at campaign stops here, also seemed enthralled by the transformative power of certainty.
“You can trust that when Mitt gets behind that desk”—“when,” not “if”—“the decisions that are being made are always going to be tough decisions, and you want to understand the character of the person that’s sitting at that desk,” the red-jacketed aspiring first lady told the overflow crowd—a few hundred packed in the second-floor hall and another hundred listening to speakers downstairs. “And I can promise you that his character is exemplary, and he’s always done the right thing in life…I completely trust this person.”
“She is totally and completely unbiased—you can take every word as gospel truth,” Romney quipped when he took back the microphone, half in jest but (it seemed) wholly in earnest.
The candidate was equally captivated by the charms of the rosy scenario. Buoyed by the Des Moines Register’s final caucus poll that put him narrowly in first place over a sluggish Ron Paul and a surging Rick Santorum, Romney told reporters at a restaurant in Atlantic, Iowa: “I’m pretty confident we’ll have a good night.”
When the candidate strolled into the tiny room set aside for his press availability at the Family Table restaurant—and saw that it was stuffed with 70-odd foreign and American journalists who were crammed against walls and squatting on the floor (“I’m not going to kneel down for a Republican,” declared a Dutch radio reporter)—he started laughing. And then said little that was illuminating or even interesting—the once and future frontrunner protecting his lead.
At the meeting hall in Council Bluffs, Romney tweaked his standard stump speech to include a fresher pop-cultural reference than I Love Lucy (which, after all, aired its last episode in 1957) and a less awkward one than “Who Let The Dogs Out?”—the Caribbean pop song he goofily quoted to a group of African-Americans he encountered during his 2008 campaign in Florida.
“The gap between [President Obama’s] promises and his performance is the largest I’ve seen since the Kardashian wedding and the promise of ‘Till death do you part,’ ” Romney joshed, to howls of laughter.
Speaking of romance and its humanizing potential, Romney now retells at nearly every stop the story of how he spotted the 15-year-old Ann Davies at a high-school party and persuaded the young man who brought her to let him drive her home, “because Ann lived closer to me…We’ve been going steady ever since.”
The crowd at Council Bluffs loved that one. They also liked it when he recited the lyrics to America, the Beautiful and recounted how his parents took the Romney kids on road trips to national parks in their humble Rambler—presumably without strapping the family dog to the roof. And there were only a few looks of surprise—mainly from the reporters in back—when the candidate claimed to his audience: “I never imagined that I’d be running for president of the United States. I was a governor for four years. Only four years. I didn’t inhale. I’m still a business guy.”
This from a man who has been running for president relentlessly for the past six years, whose father was governor of Michigan as well as a presidential candidate, whose mother ran for the U.S. Senate, and who has been trying to gain one political office or another since 1994, when he attempted, with his dad’s help, to dislodge Ted Kennedy from his Senate seat.
After he finished his stump speech, Romney efficiently worked the crowd, a scene that looked like an old film being run through the projector at double-time.
“It was very inspiring,” said audience member Eric Parsons, a 53-year-old divorced father of a teenager. He has been torn between Gingrich and Romney, he said, and has begun to lean enough toward Romney that he was wearing the latter’s campaign sticker on his sweater. “To begin with I liked Gingrich,” Parsons said. “As a Reagan guy, I liked him because he was close to Reagan and worked with him. But Mitt is a fresher face.”
Parsons, who looks older than his years, added that he likes Romney even though he lost his job at a local grain elevator after the kind of corporate takeover that Romney continually orchestrated as chief executive of Bain Capital, the leveraged buyout firm. “Sure, I’m bothered by that,” he said. “But that’s business.”
He continued: “I haven’t been employed for over three years. It’s been pretty shitty. Nobody’s going to hire a 53-year-old fat man with diabetes. I have mad skills in computers, I’ve worked retail, I have supervisory skills. But when they can get some kid with a degree and pay them less than they pay me, that’s what pisses me off.”
The Kardashian fan was leaving the building.