Romney Gains Credibility In Early Primary States

Mitt Romney in Idaho last week. With his two main rivals already well known, the former Massachusetts governor has worked to raise his national profile.
Mitt Romney in Idaho last week. With his two main rivals already well known, the former Massachusetts governor has worked to raise his national profile. (By Robert Bower -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 25, 2007

BOSTON -- When former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney began airing television ads in a handful of states last winter, his opponents paid little notice. Early advertising in presidential campaigns -- particularly commercials broadcast almost 11 months before the first contests -- seemed a classic waste of resources.

Four months and more than $4 million later, Romney's ads are still running, and the GOP presidential candidate is reaping the dividends. Although he remains well behind former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona in most national polls, his standing in the states that will kick off the nominating process has risen dramatically.

In New Hampshire, Romney leads both McCain, who won there in 2000, and Giuliani, who leads virtually all the national polls. In Iowa, his campaign's organizational depth recently drove Giuliani and McCain to drop out of an August GOP presidential straw poll -- seen as a trial run for next year's first-in-the-nation caucuses -- rather than risk a costly and embarrassing defeat at the hands of their lesser-known rival.

Romney's rise is an instructive story of seizing opportunities, maximizing small advantages, attention to detail and a few lucky breaks. The challenge his advisers faced at the beginning of the year was to prove that he belonged in the same conversation with McCain and Giuliani. Now he has done that, long before demonstrating any significant national support.

His success in the early states has come despite controversies that have hit his campaign. Most significant have been questions about his shifting positions on abortion, gay rights and other issues, and whether they represent a true change of heart or simply an attempt to appeal to the conservative constituencies who will select the next Republican nominee.

Already Romney is under attack from McCain for flip-flopping, and those attacks will intensify in the months ahead. Romney also faces high expectations in the first two primary states, though no recent GOP nominee has managed to win both. Additionally, his opponents say, Romney has benefited from being the only candidate on television, a situation that will not last indefinitely.

But as former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee prepares to announce his candidacy, which will further scramble a fluid GOP race, Romney has turned himself into a significant force no longer discounted by any of his rivals.

"It doesn't mean we've won anything yet. It just means you can't ignore us," Tom Rath, a senior Romney adviser, said of the campaign so far. He added, referring to the GOP race: "Right now, I think I could make a pretty good argument that it's hard to see an endgame without us in it. Which is a lot more than you probably could have said a year ago."

As the 2008 campaign began early this year, Romney advisers concluded that there was little chance of moving up in national polls against McCain or Giuliani until far later into the year. But they recognized that Romney couldn't continue to be seen as a top-tier candidate without demonstrating support somewhere, and that led to a strategy aimed at winning support in the states that will vote early in 2008.

"We made a decision that we really needed to introduce Mitt Romney to the voters of America via the early states," Beth Myers, Romney's campaign manager, said last week. "And we also needed to play in as many invisible primaries as possible."

That meant an intensive organizational focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, a potentially risky decision to launch an early advertising campaign, and the aggressive pursuit of any opportunity to showcase Romney against his rivals in straw polls, candidate forums, conservative gatherings, televised debates and fundraising. And it meant moving quickly to demonstrate that Romney deserved to be taken seriously.

On Jan. 8, his campaign organized a public fundraising event that brought about 400 wealthy supporters to Boston to spend the day calling around the country for contributions. By day's end, campaign officials claimed donations and pledges of $6.5 million, an eye-popping figure that caught the attention of other campaigns and political insiders.

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