Romney’s playing to win the GOP, but the general election is another game

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent January 11, 2012

Mitt Romney’s victory in New Hampshire was never in doubt. What the campaign here said about the former Massachusetts governor’s readiness for a general-election contest against President Obama may be the more important story.

New Hampshire highlighted Romney’s competitiveness. If Republicans had wondered whether he has the fire for what is likely to be a bruising general-election race, his campaign here (and in Iowa) showed his preparedness. But it also exposed limitations in Romney’s personal skills as a candidate and the vulnerabilities in his background that could hamper him significantly in a matchup against the president.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

If Romney becomes the GOP nominee, the victory speech he delivered Tuesday night will probably be seen as the opening volley in his bid to defeat Obama. The address was widely judged as the best he has delivered in this campaign, sharper in tone and with more elevated rhetoric.

Romney cannot match the president for oratorical eloquence, but he has a message that his advisers think can reach beyond the Republican base and tap into the anxieties of swing voters who will decide the election.

Obama, in his “new nationalism” speech in Kansas last month, tried to frame the coming election as a fight to ensure middle-class prosperity against the forces of economic greed and excess. Romney appears eager to join that debate by asking whether government or free enterprise is the engine to ensure prosperity for all Americans. If Obama views government as a protector of the middle class, Romney sees government under this president as intrusive and heavy-handed.

“We must offer an alternative vision,” Romney said Tuesday. “I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”

Romney’s Republican rivals, led by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), have gone after his record as an executive at the equities firm Bain Capital. The super PAC supporting Gingrich has put a powerful 30-minute attack video online documenting job layoffs engineered by Bain under Romney.

These attacks are creating a conservative backlash against Gingrich, who is being accused of assailing capitalism. Whether the former speaker has the stomach to keep pounding away is the question of the moment.

Some Republican strategists think Gingrich could help toughen Romney against similar attacks by Obama’s campaign.

“Mitt Romney just got a dose of the toughest attack the Obama campaign will launch against him in a general election: the Bain flu,” strategist Alex Castellanos said Wednesday. “And Romney is not only surviving it, he is building antibodies that will help inoculate him in the fall. Gingrich has done him a favor.”

Democrats, however, think that Romney’s venture-capitalist past is a core weakness and that he may be the wrong candidate for the times. They see his work for Bain as undercutting his argument that he understands job creation better than the president.

“Romney’s efforts to dismiss the criticisms of his Bain record as the politics of envy has significant potential to boomerang on him,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, “because it sets him up as an elitist who won’t change a system that Americans have come to see as rigged in favor of people like Romney.”

Mark Mellman, another Democratic pollster, said Romney seemed unprepared for the Bain attack. “Given all the time he had to prepare for it, his failure to adequately respond cast doubts on the adequacy of his message operation,” Mellman said.

Democrats and Republicans have agreed privately that Romney would be less scary to independent voters than a GOP nominee who is further to the right ideologically. Scott Howell, a Republican strategist, said, “Romney will appeal to a broader electorate, and that’s a huge problem for Obama.”

Mark Penn, a Democratic strategist who has advised former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, noted that Romney seems to do well with the kinds of swing voters who supported Obama in 2008, but he questions whether the candidate can appeal to anxious workers in 2012.

“While the McCain-Palin ticket drove away better-educated professional voters, Romney could bring them back,” he said Wednesday. “Romney’s weakness may be where the McCain ticket was strong — lower-middle-class voters who have felt battered by the economy but have more trouble relating to Romney.”

Throughout the campaign, many Republicans have shown little passion for Romney’s candidacy, but GOP strategists said Wednesday that his victory in New Hampshire has begun to dispel questions about whether he can expand his support across the party. They also hope that anti-Obama sentiment will make up for any lack of enthusiasm about Romney.

“New Hampshire demonstrated the ability of the Romney campaign to conceive and execute a winning plan,” said Steve Schmidt, who was a senior adviser to the 2008 campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “His victory speech set a framework to engage the president in an argument that can lead to victory in November.”

But one GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, offered a cautionary note. “I have my concerns about how Romney will match up against a skilled campaigner,” this strategist said. “Obama is also not as prone to slip-ups on the trail, which have been an issue for Mitt Romney.”

Romney’s goal now is to effectively wrap up the nomination by the end of the month. What could stand in his way is the potential for one of his rivals, other than Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), to emerge as the lone conservative alternative. Gingrich and Rick Santorum are fighting for that opportunity.

But if Romney is successful, he and his advisers know that a far tougher campaign lies ahead.

For Dan Balz’s previous columns, go to postpolitics.com.

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