Returning to Iowa, a wiser Mitt Romney avoids his past mistakes

August 10, 2011

Mitt Romney arrived Wednesday in what he called “a quintessential Iowa setting, with corn and beans around us,” and made a keen observation:

“Unlike the last time I was at the state fair, it’s going to be cool and sunny both,” he told reporters here, letting his perfectly parted hair flap in the summer breeze. “The weather has markedly improved this cycle.”

He is hoping that Republican voters notice more than just a change in the weather.

The Mitt Romney who visited Iowa on Wednesday for the first time since beginning his front-running presidential campaign is a different Mitt Romney from the one who left, scorned, in 2008 after exhausting his time and money for a second-place finish.

He is betting that he has learned all the right lessons from 2008 — and not just in Iowa. The retooled Romney is more disciplined, more confident in his policy views and seemingly more relaxed. His focus is nearly always on the economy, and his style tends toward Gap jeans and open-collared shirts with rolled-up sleeves over the starched shirts and neckties of the last go-round.

And here in Iowa, Romney is setting low expectations by skipping Saturday’s straw poll and instead waging a stealth effort designed to campaign enough not to ignore the state while not appearing to be competing too hard.

“There were the inevitable ‘lessons learned,’ ” Romney writes in his book, “No Apology,” of his 2008 run. “My dad, George Romney, used to say of his 1968 presidential campaign that ‘it was like a miniskirt . . . short and revealing.’ Mine was a little longer, but just as revealing.”

The question for Romney is whether what he found revealing about 2008 is on the mark for 2012. Will Republican voters hungry for bold leaders who govern from the gut rally behind a methodical and cautious front-runner?

“Romney clearly has a playbook, and he’s not diverting from the game plan. No audibles at the line of scrimmage this time. And it’s working well so far,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime GOP presidential strategist who is neutral in the 2012 contest.

“It’s a safe strategy,” he continued. “But it may not be a safe election.”

Even as Romney leads the polls and has monetary and organizational advantages over his opponents, there is little evidence that he has expanded his support base far beyond where he left off in 2008. Early buzz has eluded him, instead centering on other candidates, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a likely contender — and even non-candidates, such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

As the 2012 contest moves into a new phase this week, Romney, who has avoided direct engagements with his Republican rivals, is preparing to face an aggressive onslaught during a debate Thursday from the likes of Bachmann and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

‘Wandering the desert’

After his 2008 loss, Romney gathered his inner circle and his family to distill the lessons of his campaign. They emerged convinced that if he ran again, he would be a more authentic candidate and have a smarter strategy.

“He’s not a guy who doesn’t learn,” said Tom Rath, a senior adviser. “He knew that if he was going to move forward and stay in the game, he had to do things differently.”

Said Joel C. Peterson, the chairman of JetBlue Airways and a friend of Romney’s: “A lot of people, once they’ve felt a defeat like that, wallow in it. Mitt, he just kind of stepped back and said, ‘Okay, here’s what happened,’ and figured it out.”

It wasn’t the first time Romney had to readjust after a loss. In 1994, he made his first run for office, challenging then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The lesson he learned in that race was never to let your opponent define you.

Kennedy dismissed Romney as “multiple choice” for opposing abortion but supporting abortion rights. Meanwhile, Romney was rather specific about the number of jobs he said he had created in private equity, but that left an opening for Kennedy, whose campaign aired devastating ads highlighting the jobs he was responsible for eliminating.

Romney struggled to shed the label of coldhearted businessman and lost 58 percent to 41 percent.

The next time he appeared on the ballot, for governor in 2002, he won. Those who oversaw Kennedy’s 1994 campaign said Romney has learned to be more vague on the stump and to avoid gaffes.

Romney has his spiel boiled down to “a one-word vocabulary. All he says is ‘jobs,’ ” said Tad Devine, one of Kennedy’s strategists. “He’s really cleaned up his act.”

In 2008, Romney’s campaign was marred by missteps and indecision. The often distracted candidate sought counsel from a pack of feuding consultants.

“Mitt has no intrinsic political knowledge,” said Douglas E. Gross, who chaired his 2008 campaign in Iowa. “He’s a consultant. Consultants come in and gee-whiz ya and leave. . . . He needed a consigliere. When he didn’t have that, he was wandering the desert.”

This time, Romney’s team is smaller and more in sync. Unlike some rival campaigns, his has not had a public disagreement.

Romney trains his fire not on his GOP opponents, but on President Obama. (“He won’t carry Iowa because Iowans recognize that this presidency has failed,” the Republican said here on Wednesday.) He rarely submits to interviews and sometimes avoids the public. And when he is campaigning, it’s usually in settings where he’s most comfortable.

Wayne Berman, a Romney adviser and fundraiser, said the campaign is “avoiding overexposing its candidate, it’s avoiding chasing after things that undermine message discipline, and it’s avoiding overspending. And those three things are the great disease of every front-running candidate.”

‘Now he is who he is’

The biggest lesson Romney was told he needed to learn after 2008 was to not try to be everything to everyone.

“He tried very hard to catch the rhythm of the campaign and be who people wanted him to be,” said former senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah), a Romney supporter. “Now he is who he is, and that’s much more attractive.”

Another Republican former senator and backer, Ohio’s George Voinovich, said he counseled Romney to dust himself off and keep at it.

“I didn’t expect him to start dressing differently like Al Gore did, but to kind of relax a little bit more and speak from his heart,” Voinovich said. “That’s what people want. They want to know who you are, what do you believe in. He took it well.”

So far, Romney hasn’t made the sale to everybody. One prominent Republican donor said he was prepared to sign up as a bundler, but after 45 minutes with Romney he left underwhelmed.

“He’s still superficial — hair in perfect shape, perfect smile, perfect family,” said the donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. “There’s something visceral about it. He can’t change it.”

The donor said he plans to sign up as a bundler for Perry.

Romney, meanwhile, is focused on his turnaround. Asked what lessons he learned from his defeat in Iowa, he quipped: “I liked winning better than losing.”

Then he reflected, as much as any guarded politician reflects.

“I don’t have the key to telling you specifically what I could’ve done differently other than stand for what you believe in,” he said. “If the people support you, great, and if they don’t, then there are other people they can choose.”

Staff writer Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report.

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