Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s strong performance over a five-week, six-debate debate national gauntlet has, without question, boosted his prospects in the 2012 presidential nomination fight.
Here’s our conclusion about why: The more rules that govern an interaction, the better Romney does. His mind is a brilliant organizing and contextualizing machine — able to synthesize scads of disparate information, analyze it and produce a smart output. (He is, you’ll recall, a management consultant to his core.)
“He doesn’t improvise well, but he is very fast at remembering and performing lines which seemed to work in earlier, similar situations,” said one Republican strategist familiar with Romney and his way of thinking. “Mitt performs best in situations that are like his mind — ordered, structured, and governed by rules that have already been agreed on.”
So, in debates where there are prescribed rules of conduct and proven ways in which success can be achieved, Romney shines. And, to the extent he does struggle in debates, it’s when the rules are either bent or broken.
In the gauntlet of Republican debates that have essentially defined the GOP contest since August, Romney has come across as knowledgeable, reasonable and — dare we say it, funny — turning in a series of showings that have distinguished him from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
“Debates matter,” wrote Romney pollster Neil Newhouse in a recent strategy memo. “Governor Perry lost two-thirds of his support in the early states, placing him in a tie for third place with Congressman Ron Paul.”
Romney’s strong debate performances — and Perry’s weak ones -- have also largely obscured the former Massachusetts governor’s biggest weakness in the race: his struggles to master the art of the give and take of the campaign trail.
“Ever since he stepped onto the national stage, Romney has been criticized as being unable to connect with voters — partly because of past positions out of step with many in his party and partly because of what some say is a wooden, detached personality. Although he has sharpened his campaign operation and mostly aced a series of debates this year, Romney’s trip to Iowa on Thursday and recent swings through New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida reveal a candidate still struggling to make that connection.”
We’ve written sporadically about Romney’s campaign trail awkwardness — witness our piece out of New Hampshire earlier this year — and have spent lots and lots time thinking about it and talking to people who know him about why he struggles on the stump.
Remember last week in the Las Vegas debate, Romney’s only so-so moment was when he got rattled as Perry repeatedly interrupted him. Romney appealed to the debate moderator — CNN’s Anderson Cooper — to intervene. Not exactly a profile in courage moment.
And, at the Iowa State Fair, Romney uttered the now famous/infamous “corporations are people too, my friend” line after repeatedly being heckled by some in the crowd.
(One Republican consultant suggested that Romney’s problem is not that he is too much of a rule follower but that he is “compulsively nice”.)
The more free-form an encounter, the harder it seems to be for Romney, a fact that could become an issue heading into this more spontaneous phase of the campaign.
When required to meet-and-greet a room full of diners, Romney does it — but methodically and with a sort of “one step removed” feeling that is palpable. (His “fake butt-grabbing” incident in New Hampshire is just one example of the strangeness that occasionally accompanies Romney on the campaign trail.)
With a three-week break before the next Republican debate, Romney’s stump skills (or lack thereof) will likely start to draw more attention. His allies note that he has gotten better on the stump since 2008, and some even argue that they have seen him be quite good in the hurly-burly of a campaign outing.
Sure. But, in the same way that Romney totally outclassed Perry in the debates, Perry, a quite able campaigner, has an opportunity to brightly outshine Romney when it comes to the retail politics game.
In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, retail politics still matters. If Romney can survive that trio of states — he badly needs to win New Hampshire to do so — then his skill set (and money) will start to become more and more of an advantage in large and paid-media driven states like Florida, Arizona and Michigan.
And, if Romney winds up as the Republican presidential nominee, the hand-to-hand combat of retail campaigning will largely be replaced by a series of touchdowns in swing states and massive amounts of television ads.
To be clear, all presidential candidates — and all people — have strengths and weaknesses. (The Fix is terribly disorganized not to mention neurotic.) The process of successfully running for president involves spending as much time as possible doing what you’re good at and as little time as possible on what you’re not.
The past five weeks have been all about Romney’s strength. The next three will focus on his weakness.