“We have a candidate who once thought the greatest problem plaguing the nation’s schools was the movie ‘Aladdin,’ ” the voter said. “We have another candidate, who the only thing he has to offer is a $9.99 pizza deal — I mean tax plan — and we have a candidate whose only claim to fame was that he shot a coyote as governor.”
Would Romney, he wanted to know, “finally give the people of Iowa an alternative to that?”
This was Romney’s moment to make the case that he is the substantive one, the electable one, to tell Republican voters that Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain and Rick Perry may be the candidates they love but that Mitt Romney is the president they need. And that that is why they should love him, too.
But Romney didn’t. Instead, he queued up his talking points — that he will be back again, hopes to win here, but will campaign everywhere. He quickly turned to a stump-speech standby, about how Obama once said he would be looking at a one-term proposition if he couldn’t fix the economy. “I’m here to collect,” Romney said.
The crowd laughed, as his crowds do every time he delivers that line, and Romney stood holding the microphone at his waist, his left hand in his pocket, smiling his porcelain-perfect smile.
The Iowa caucuses that kick off the nominating contest are in 11 weeks. And Romney, with the prize closer than ever before in the five years he has been seeking the White House, is racing to make the sale — to expand his support beyond the 20-odd percent he has held in the polls all year.
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.
When voters exposed themselves emotionally, Romney offered little empathy. When they sought his support for their causes, Romney didn’t show them that he cared. Romney was scripted when he could have been spontaneous. He was boardroom cool when he could have been living room warm.
It’s not for lack of trying. Romney lets his hair breathe, goes tie-less and travels with a slimmed-down entourage. He deploys his wife, Ann, to share stories about Mitt the husband and Mitt the father. He campaigns less as someone looking to fulfill his personal ambition than as a turnaround specialist whose skills are needed for the nation. “I am not in this race for me,” he says.
“He’s doing a better job of trying to be more engaging, if you will,” said Brent Siegrist, a former Iowa House speaker who endorsed Romney in 2008 and plans to do so again. But, he said, Romney still has weaknesses. “He’s almost too perfect — too good-looking, too successful — that’s just what it feels like. It’s almost like he’s Robert Redford in ‘The Candidate.’ ”