Mitt Romney, never Republicans’ dream date, hopes to be the one they marry

September 28, 2011

Once again, there was another group of Republicans begging its latest dream date to run for president. And once again, there was Mitt Romney, in his fifth year of running for president, facing questions about why he never seems to be the one Republicans are swooning over.

“I could get a quick bump in the polls by saying some outrageous and incendiary things,” Romney said Wednesday when the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” asked him why so many have praised his debate performances only to go looking for somebody else — in this case, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

But it’s not in Romney’s nature to say outrageous and incendiary things. Instead, he’s sticking to his tortoise-beats-all-the-hares strategy.

“You just express what you believe, talk about the issues you care about. Hopefully, people will come to you in the final analysis,” the former Massachusetts governor said, adding that “you keep your head down, talk about the issues you care about, hope the other guys stumble.”

It has been like that all year for Romney: hoping the others stumble. To a certain degree, it has worked. The excitement about Donald Trump ended in April when he decided not to run. Ditto Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in May. In July, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) caught fire, only to fade by the end of August.

That’s when Texas Gov. Rick Perry surged to the lead, but he has run into trouble of late, especially after branding as heartless those who don’t agree with his state law that gives college tuition breaks to children of illegal immigrants. Perry stepped back that remark in an interview Wednesday with conservative media outlet Newsmax.com, saying it was “inappropriate.”

Through it all, there never has been much of a clamor for Romney — although that hasn’t been a part of his strategy. The Romney campaign is banking its success largely on a single notion: that voters are most concerned about the economy and that Romney’s background in the private sector makes him the best person to fix it.

“We’ve had a very consistent strategy, which is that there’s a jobs crisis out there, the president hasn’t addressed it and the president doesn’t know how to address it,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist. “You react to different opponents and different things that are said, but it doesn’t change the focus of the campaign or the rationale for why Mitt Romney’s running.”

So instead of trying to channel the anger of the Republican base, Mitt Romney is being Mitt Romney — steady and serious. The question is whether enough Republicans will find that appealing.

“The Republican Party is white hot,” said Alex Castellanos, who was a top adviser to Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign and is unaligned this time. “That’s why when you see a Sarah Palin, a Donald Trump or a Herman Cain — whoosh! It’s like a Roman candle. The people just want to roll a hand grenade under Washington’s door. But at some point, you stop flirting with the candidate you want and you marry the president you need.”

Craig Shirley, an adviser to conservative-movement leaders who is neutral in the race, had a somewhat less sanguine view for Romney.

“Have you ever heard the old joke about how they had the emergency meeting at the dog-food company?” he asked.

“The president pounds the table saying, ‘We have the best marketing plan. We have the best labeling, the best delivery system, the best factory. Why aren’t we selling more dog food?’ There’s a long pause and a lowly executive says in a small voice, ‘Dogs don’t like it.’ ”

Shirley said Romney is campaigning “like he’s marketing dog food instead of trying to make it taste better. At the end of the day, this is still an art form. It’s not a science. You still have to find a way to connect to the voters.”

Some Republicans said Perry’s entrance into the race, and his quick rise to front-runner status, has helped Romney by toughening him up and making him a stronger candidate.

“It’s really put him on his game,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist and former adviser to Pat Buchanan. “He’s done very well in the debates. He has a plan for economic growth. He comes across, even in his attacks, as sort of amiable, which I think will be important when whoever our nominee is goes up against President Obama.”

So Romney continues to make his case — on the set of “Morning Joe” on Wednesday morning, with voters in New Hampshire that afternoon and with donors in Boston that evening.

“Why am I in it?” he said on the MSNBC show. “I am in this because I think at a time like this, when our economy is in such distress, not just short term, but long term — in real distress, that the only way we’re going to get it back on track is if there’s someone who’s willing to take the presidency who understands the economy.”

“And so I’m saying, ‘Look, I’m the guy at the time that’s needed. And if you guys agree, terrific. If you don’t, that’s your right, too.’ ”

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Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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