Moderator Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who is conducting focus groups during the campaign for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, asked the group members whom they would most like to talk to at a dinner party: Romney or his wife, Ann.
They chose the candidate overwhelmingly — but not because they necessarily thought he would be the liveliest conversationalist. Some said they would ask for business advice. More said they would want to find out what he is really like. “I would like to see what kind of person he is on the inside,” said Theresa Crudele, a tech vendor.
Julie Saunders, a paralegal, said Romney seems “stiff, a little distant” and asked, “What is his true personality?” She wondered: Is he cool or buttoned-down? “I’m hoping he’s cool,” she said.
They were also concerned that, after all the months of campaigning and candidate debates, they don’t know what Romney stands for, beyond their belief that he would try to repeal Obama’s health-care law. “He just keeps flip-flopping to me,” said Debra Galloway, who works in the auto auction business.
A crystallizing moment in the discussion came as people described Romney as inconsistent. Brent Bennett, a computer programmer who says he will vote for Romney in November, summed it up with four words: “He rounds the edges.”
Hart asked him to expand on that description. “We want someone like [Rick] Santorum, like [Newt] Gingrich when he was at his best in debates, to have a position, to stick with the position and not apologize for that position and not shade your answer to a question that matches what the particular audience you’re in front of might want to hear,” he said.
Everyone in the room agreed, including John Nelson, a consultant and the strongest and most consistent Romney supporter.
“I raised my hand in agreement,” he said. “Mitt Romney got killed in most of the debates, but he survived,” he said. “And the rounding of the edges . . . is how he survived. He never took a firm position. That’s over. Now it’s the big leagues. He’s going to get curveballs and knuckle balls and his communication skills are not there yet.”
Others offered similar advice to Romney. “I would say: Stop outlining what the previous administration has done wrong and focus on what you’re going to do right,” Rosa said.
“Be consistent,” said Carin Caruso, who was laid off six months ago after three decades with her company.
“Play to win,” said Ben Drawdy, who works in the health-care industry. He voted for Obama in 2008 but is now leaning toward Romney. “Don’t just try not to make mistakes.”
What these voters were saying is they want to know who Romney is, what he really believes and what he would do as president. By the time he arrives here for the Republican National Convention in August, those questions should be answered.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.