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.
Fundraising drove much of the campaign's efforts in the first quarter of the year. Romney outraised his better-known rivals, winning a burst of publicity that helped tamp down the focus on his changed positions on some issues. In that quarter, Romney raised almost $21 million to Giuliani's $15 million and McCain's $13 million.
Romney's vast personal wealth, estimated to be as much as $350 million, also gives him the ability to write a sizable check to underwrite his campaign, something none of his rivals can do, and an insurance policy that makes spending on advertising now less perilous.
Romney formally launched his campaign on Feb. 13 in Michigan, where his father served as governor. Eight days later, the campaign announced that it would begin airing television commercials in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Michigan -- all states with primaries or caucuses in January 2008.
By historical standards, it was extraordinarily early to begin spending money on commercials, but in the calculus of the Romney team, this is unlike any previous campaign. What appeared to be a major gamble looked entirely sensible inside the candidate's headquarters in Boston's North End.
Romney campaign officials concluded that the creation of a virtual national primary on Feb. 5 gives candidates with national reputations, such as McCain and Giuliani, an advantage and that Romney needed to break through in the early states to compete in that mega-event. They also concluded that the heavily front-loaded calendar is likely to enhance the value of victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In addition, Romney advisers knew that, because no major candidate is taking public financing, the state spending limits of past campaigns no longer apply. A candidate can spend freely wherever he chooses, and with a candidate who can self-finance part of his campaign, there is little likelihood of running out of money.
The campaign is now on its fifth round of advertising. South Carolina, Florida and Michigan were dropped in April, leaving Iowa and New Hampshire as the focus of Romney's efforts. Two of the ads also have been aired on cable news networks, a strategy employed successfully by President Bush's reelection campaign in 2004.
"It's gotten us an introduction," said Alex Castellanos, Romney's chief media strategist. "I think it's no more than that. It's gotten us to the starting line with other candidates. It would be presumptuous to claim more than that. But it's gotten something that is important in this sense: When you put Mitt Romney on TV, good things happen."
A McCain adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly about the race, said Romney's ads have clearly helped in Iowa and New Hampshire. "At this point, you can only look at it as a short-term positive for him," he said. "It doesn't necessarily portend great things down the road."
Romney's campaign freely admits that he is pursuing the only realistic option available, given the competition and the calendar. He has also benefited from the problems of others. His team, for example, never anticipated that McCain would raise just $13 million in the first quarter.
In fact, McCain has struggled for months, to Romney's benefit, and is now in difficult straits in Iowa because of his support for an immigration bill despised by many conservative Republicans. In New Hampshire, McCain has also run into problems, although he has a stronger reservoir of support upon which to draw.
Giuliani appears to have adopted a Feb. 5 strategy that calls for him to survive Iowa and New Hampshire but win states including Florida (which votes on Jan. 29), California, New York and New Jersey. His organizational efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire lag far behind Romney's and McCain's, and last week his Iowa chairman, former congressman Jim Nussle, accepted President Bush's offer to become director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Romney has yet to demonstrate convincingly that he can win over evangelical Christians, an important constituency in Republican primaries; some are skeptical about him because of his Mormon religion, and others may doubt that his conversion on abortion is genuine.
The entry of Thompson, a Southerner, will add another barrier to reaching those voters and will make it all the more difficult for Romney in the South Carolina primary, which will come after those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Thompson has another advantage, which is that the Feb. 5 mega-primary day includes several Southern states. Romney advisers now believe that Florida's Jan. 29 primary may prove to be the real showdown in the GOP race.
All of this suggests that, while Romney has run well in the first half of the year, much bigger tests loom. And he will not have the luxury of being ignored by his rivals.
"I think to date, Romney's running the smartest campaign," GOP strategist Scott Reed said. "They've won the money race. They're organizing and advertising in the early primary states and putting real dollars on the air, and the candidate has made very few mistakes. . . . He's performed well in the debates. . . . You've got to give them high marks -- to date."