Romney's Master Plan
BOSTON -- At the waterfront headquarters of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, the passage of Labor Day marked a major milestone in the candidate's long-standing strategy for winning the Republican nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor has approached the challenge of his dark-horse candidacy with the mind-set of a corporate turnaround specialist -- the work he did for years at Bain Capital. Thinking as a venture capitalist, he set specific goals and a timetable -- and so far, he is on track.
The main measures of that progress have been Romney's victory in the August straw vote in Ames, Iowa, and the polling leads he has established in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The charts in his headquarters also measure the growth of organizational resources in Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida -- the other target states for Romney.
But several hours of conversation with the leaders of the Romney campaign left the impression that they have a clear understanding that larger challenges remain -- establishing his personal credibility against charges of flip-flopping and finding broader themes that might enable him to consolidate support as the field narrows.
The flip-flop issue arises from shifts that Romney has made between his earlier runs for the Senate and the governorship in liberal Massachusetts and his bid now for conservative support in the presidential primaries. These include changes in his positions on abortion, gay rights, immigration and other social issues.
Romney has responded to these challenges, and, as far as the polls are concerned, his rebuttals seem to have been effective. But no one at his headquarters thinks the credibility issue has been put to rest. His team expects to see tough ads on the flip-flops, which they assume may presage a major assault on his character. Because of the heavy spending he has done, much of it self-financed, they expect to hear the argument that Romney is so ambitious he will do anything to win.
It will be up to Romney to rebut such assertions by demonstrating that his convictions are real. Beyond that, his advisers see a need for him to set forth a vision of a Romney presidency that is broader and more comprehensive than anything voters have heard so far. It is significant to them that Romney's support in Iowa and New Hampshire has plateaued at 30 percent or so over the summer -- a good but not sufficient base.
One of his strategists with deep roots in New Hampshire told me that his sense is that Republican voters are depressed by the Democratic victories of 2006 and that they feel leaderless as the Bush administration limps through its final months and Republicans in Congress find themselves fending off challenges to their own credibility on Iraq and other issues.
"If anyone can provide a rallying point for the party -- give them something that offers hope of success -- that person can move quickly to the front," this adviser said. "But you have to find the message."
That is the main challenge that Romney -- along with the others -- faces. But he is now running from an advantageous position. He still trails well behind Rudy Giuliani in national polls, and newcomer Fred Thompson also is running ahead of him. But no one is close to Romney in Iowa polling, and no one has the grass-roots organization he built to win the straw vote. The New Hampshire race is closer, but the support in the state for both John McCain and Mike Huckabee means that Romney conceivably could win with a plurality well short of a majority.
No Republican in the modern era of contested nominations has won both of these early states, and the plausible belief in the Romney camp is that his doing so would have the effect of vaulting him into the lead nationally. As of now, those contests will be followed by Michigan, where Romney spent his boyhood and the Romney name is familiar, thanks to his father's service as governor. Then come South Carolina, where Romney's challenge is simply to exceed low expectations, and Florida, which in the Romney calculus could be decisive in setting the table for the Feb. 5 super-primary.
Many events could upset this scenario. But the methodical, business-like Romney campaign has had a clear strategy -- and, unlike Thompson, a stable, professional management team. For them, January -- not February -- is the decisive month.
In the end, everything rests on Romney himself -- and that is as it should be when the presidency is at stake.