As Mitt Romney heads into Super Tuesday rising in the polls, he is doing his best to shed three favorite memes of the political chattering class. After essentially six years of running for president, he may have gotten the knack of it.
The dig on Romney has been that he doesn’t convince or bond with the conservative base. In fact, he’s been winning the “somewhat” conservative vote but not the “very conservative” vote for some time. Now, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows: “He had the support of 38% of likely GOP primary voters in the survey, his highest mark since launching his campaign in June and up 10 percentage points since January. His closest rival, Mr. Santorum, had 32% support. . . . His backing among tea-party supporters jumped to 35%, up from 21% in January, while his support among Republicans who call themselves ‘very conservative’ nearly doubled, to 32%. He also saw a surge of support in the South, where Mr. Gingrich’s own backing plunged to a third of what it was just six weeks ago.” Importantly, he did all of this without engaging in culture wars or plunging into rhetoric or taking positions that will turn off general-election voters.
Romney has also been scolded for being “too negative.” His campaign team has continued its search-and-destroy mission, picking apart Rick Santorum’s record bit by bit and seizing on his rhetorical extremism and organizational flubs (e.g. not qualifying for 18 delegates in Ohio). But the candidate has been focused on policy lately, rolling out his tax plan and reintroducing his plans on debt control and entitlement reform.
In doing so Romney also reduced the emphasis on his own bullet-point resume (business man for 25 years, rescued the Olympics, etc.), which critics claimed was not sufficiently compelling to reach conservative voters and persuade Republicans he was the best-equipped candidate to take over the executive branch. It turns out that conservative voters really care about the issues, and Romney has satisfied them by revealing in greater detail what he wants to do as president.
And finally, Romney is now talking about positive aspects of his life. It had often seemed that the positive parts of Romney’s personal life (his huge charitable giving, support for his sick wife, his work as a lay leader in the Mormon Church) were stamped “top secret,” and kept from public view. But that began to change. First, he relented on release of his tax returns, highlighting the enormous sums he pays in taxes and gives away. Ann Romney has become a beloved figure on the trail and now cuts biographical ads, sharing Romney’s softer side. And Romney himself now talks about his overseas mission, his Bain rescue operation, his wife’s illness and his dad’s immigrant and rags-to-riches story.
In this he surely has been helped by the comparison to Rick Santorum, who seems to be doing his best to appear harsh and angry. In the choice between a sort of TV dad and a cultural scold, the TV dad doesn’t look so bad.
Much has been made about Romney’s wealth “gaffes.” Fred Barnes argues this is much ado about nothing: “One, people by and large don’t hate the rich. They don’t think the well-to-do are evil, as they might have in the 1930s. Two, by definition, a gaffe is a social blunder or faux pas. Romney’s supposed gaffes don’t qualify. Three, everybody already knows Romney is rich. Next to the fact he’s a Mormon, it’s the personal detail for which he’s most famous.” Romney will likely continue to make comments either because he’s being honest (he really does have NASCAR owners as friends and his wife does have two Cadillacs) and because he sometimes tries to hard to bond with ordinary voters. But if the rich-guy utterances are one small part of a larger, more favorable image of a candidate, those comments won’t have the bite they once did.
And let’s be honest, the fight has gone out of a lot of Romney’s right-wing critics. They’ll still slam him for real and imagined slip-ups. But as he becomes more and more likely to be the nominee, the conservative media no longer delights in piling on every time he lets on that he is rich.
President Obama (who’s a millionaire himself) and the mainstream media will continue to flyspeck for Romney’s failure to abide by the rules of class-correctness (the counterpart to political correctness in which only liberal rich guys get a free pass for amassing wealth). But all of that will have less traction, the Romney team hopes, if the public knows more about a guy whose worst quality seems to be that he provokes envy among those who chide him for being too perfect (“plastic,” they say). And let’s not forget that he is running against a president whose idea of connecting with average voters is to drop his “g’s.”