Alas, Mitt Romney Doesn't Get the Boot At Timberland

Romney speaks to employees at the Timberland corporate headquarters in New Hampshire on the eve of today's primary election.
Romney speaks to employees at the Timberland corporate headquarters in New Hampshire on the eve of today's primary election. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

STRATHAM, N.H., Jan. 7 -- Mitt Romney carried his presidential dreams to one of the cultural symbols of cool today, the Timberland headquarters. He did not emerge with a pair of boots. He told CEO Jeff Swartz he didn't have time to shop at the discounted store on the grounds and declined Swartz's offer to shop for him.

Maybe that was a mistake.

Not many products in our society speak so neatly, so metaphorically, to bridging divides and appealing to everyone. Tims are worn by the rich and the poor, by kids in the inner city and outdoorsmen in the Rockies. Ladies wear Tims. Timberland is the independent voter.

Who could possibly not see this link between boots and politics? When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned at the Timberland headquarters, he made sure he bought a pair. His daughter had given him grief about his fashion choices, he joked. He needed an upgrade. And look at him now: He's cruising ahead of Romney in all the latest polls here, poised to send his chief rival to the alley of desperation should the former Massachusetts governor lose Tuesday.

So on the final day of campaigning in New Hampshire, with no Tims and a speech that paid no homage to their hipness, Romney talked to company employees about health care, illegal immigration and a Washington that is "fundamentally unable to change." To be fair, he did -- briefly -- try to contrast the broken government, as he put it, in the nation's capital with the "innovation" and "creativity" of the bootmaker's designs. But he didn't try to carry that very far. Mostly he told a few stories, talked about his experience as a venture capitalist and as savior of the Olympics.

He has Superman's good looks in a blue pullover sweater, but hasn't been very man of steel-like on the campaign trail. The 550 people who gathered in a conference room to hear him -- mostly employees but some guests -- listened politely, laughed a little, applauded at appropriate moments. But how many uncertain minds he changed is unclear.

Paula Hamel, an independent voter who works in the company's finance department, hesitated when asked for her review of his appearance. "Pretty good," she said. "But I'm still undecided. That's the sad thing. This time around, there are a lot of viable candidates. I was kind of hoping that today -- " She stopped in midsentence and slammed her fist into an open hand. As in: I was hoping Romney could close the deal. But it didn't happen. "So I am going out on the Internet and reviewing and hoping that will get me to my decision."

Swartz was asked if Romney could benefit from a little of the Timberland cool. This is a subject he warmed to.

"Cool is substantive," Swartz said, "and he's cool." Swartz has known Romney for quite a while; they both served on the board of City Year, the national youth service organization. "There's too much flash," Swartz continued, too much emphasis in politics -- and fashion -- on sizzle. "He is a good, principled man," Swartz said of Romney. "I don't know if he'll make a good president. That's a voter choice." And not one Swartz will be making, as he lives in Massachusetts. But his employees -- 700 are New Hampshire voters -- are encouraged to make whatever arrangements are convenient, including coming in late or leaving early, in order to vote.

What Swartz wants from his politicians are the same qualities he expects from his brand: "honest, authentic, unadorned." He wants customers to be able to say, "When I put on Timberlands, I feel unstoppable."

Romney is not yet unstoppable. Maybe if he gets a pair of Tims he will be in better shape. Maybe he can get one of those coveted Don Cheadle-designed "Save Darfur" boots, 100 pairs in existence. Or, perhaps he can design his own, which Timberland encourages.

"The bottom line is I want my brand to be a means for people to express themselves," said Swartz. "Our brand's point of view is, it's not about us, it's about you."

On Tuesday at the polls, it may be about Mitt Romney.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company