To Mitt Romney campaign, enthusiasm may be overrated

March 8, 2012

There are people who are passionate about Mitt Romney. Really.

“I’m excited,” said Joseph Beyer, president of Harvard Business School’s Finance Club and an ardent Romney supporter. He added that the campus is a “good proxy of what his base would be.”

Bill Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts, where Romney won a landslide victory in Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary, pointed to Romney’s donors as another example of the candidate’s core supporters. “Those people absolutely love him,” Weld said. “Love him! Because they are almost all people out of the business world. And they just think he hung the moon.”

The problem for the Romney camp is that the business executives, comfortable suburbanites and business-school types who are most effusive about his candidacy help reinforce the enduring conservative critique of the candidate as out of touch with everyman experience and anger. After months of trying to relate to a conservative base that doesn’t trust him, Romney has taken to arguing that the entire idea of enthusiasm is overrated.

“This is a process of gathering enough delegates to become the nominee,” he told reporters Tuesday.

To hammer that point, Romney’s campaign held a spin session Wednesday at its headquarters in Boston’s North End — it was called a “courtesy briefing” — in which officials lectured a classroom of reporters. Advisers took turns arguing that the delegate math means there is no hope for Romney’s more exciting rivals. Senior adviser Ron Kaufman, asked to define Romney’s base, resorted to metaphysics.

“His base is his message,” he said. “If your message is the base, you are really in good shape.” Kaufman said the media are putting too much emphasis on Romney’s apparent inability to connect and his awkwardness in the company of voters.

“What’s more important?” he asked. “Who he’s comfortable with or who is comfortable with him?”

Last year, Romney and his wife, Ann, returned to their comfort zone to attend church in Belmont, a suburb they lived in for decades as Romney attended Harvard and became a star consultant in Boston. Nancy Dredge, a member of the congregation, chatted with Ann Romney and asked her where they live now.

“We don’t live anywhere,” Dredge recalled her answering.

Being from nowhere, believing in nothing and saying anything necessary to get elected have emerged as the go-to lines of attack on Romney.

On Super Tuesday, Romney sought to demonstrate that he is a candidate with roots. “Great to be back home,” he said in Belmont after voting at the Beech Street Senior Center, where a small crowd of local supporters applauded him.

“I think of him as from Belmont and standing on line at Shaw’s” grocery store, said Mary Hitchcock, who lives behind the senior center in the leafy neighborhood.

Romney then addressed a scrum of reporters gathered in foul territory at an adjacent ball field and signed some placards along the rope line. One man handed Romney, who chaired the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, a souvenir hockey puck from the Games to autograph.

“Where’d you find that?” Romney said, delighted. The man didn’t respond as the candidate scrawled his name across the puck. The alleged Romney enthusiast then hurried off, carrying a duffle bag filled with Romney autobiographies and other political paraphernalia. He wore a Yankees cap.

There was more authentic support for Romney around town. Doug Berthiaume, a venture capitalist who has given $100,000 to the super PAC supporting the political bid, expressed admiration for the candidate’s business acumen and integrity. He described his fellow Romney enthusiasts as “businesspeople, some of them lawyers, some consultants, a lot of business executives,” and acknowledged that Romney is not the most conservative guy in the race. “Romney has to be a conservative to get elected, but I don’t expect him to lead the charge to overturn Roe versus Wade.”

At Harvard Business School, Romney served as an inspiring case study. “As someone who could see a future in political involvement, I find it motivating,” said Beyer, who is following Romney’s example by pursuing simultaneous degrees from Harvard’s schools of business and law.

Beyer said that unlike his fellow law school students across campus, the future business leaders have no need for the “tingle” of excitement generated by charismatic candidates such as President Obama.

“We get it,” said Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor, fellow Mormon and friend of the candidate. “He’s one of us.”

Later that evening, at the Westin Hotel ballroom, Romney supporters milled about as Sweet Tooth and the Sugarbabies played Jackson 5 hits and some women handed out “Scott Brown, He’s for Us” bumper stickers.

As Romney spoke from a small stage, William Kunkler, a donor and co-chairman of the campaign’s finance committee in Illinois, stood between a pocket of empty space and Romney confidant and former Bain Capital partner Robert White. When Romney said, “Our campaign is on the move and real change is on the way,” Kunkler whispered in White’s ear, “Powerful line.”

After the speech, Kunkler expressed doubts about the electorate in the states the campaign was moving on to.

“When you get in states with a better cross section of Americans, like Florida and Illinois, you see a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “When you get to the red states — I don’t understand what these folks are looking for.”

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