Romney Homes In on a Message That Will Stick

Mitt Romney, shown campaigning Monday in New Hampshire, faces a crucial test in his native Michigan, where he is expected to pitch his corporate skills in a state with a flagging economy.
Mitt Romney, shown campaigning Monday in New Hampshire, faces a crucial test in his native Michigan, where he is expected to pitch his corporate skills in a state with a flagging economy. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

For months, the pricey image machine that Mitt Romney assembled to sell himself to the American people had marketed him as both "Mr. Fix-It" and "Mr. Conservative Values," reflecting what top aides say was a difference of opinion among his cadre of media consultants and strategists.

The struggle culminated in the days after his dramatic loss to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses. Romney suddenly unveiled a new campaign message, arguing on the stump and in television ads that he was the candidate of "change," best able to fix what he called a "broken" Washington.

But the abrupt shift in tone and substance -- a huge poster with a "to-do" list of Washington reforms suddenly began appearing at rallies in New Hampshire -- reinforced one of the most damaging narratives about Romney's candidacy: that he has no firm political convictions and will say anything to get elected.

It even prompted his rivals to openly mock him during Saturday's debate on ABC. Chided by Romney for unfairly characterizing his positions, Huckabee shot back, "Which one?" Romney's face contorted into a grimace on national television. Later, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said sarcastically: "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."

Several people close to the campaign traced the current problems to Romney's inability to settle on a single, coherent message that would define his presidency should he be nominated and then elected. In the last month before Iowa, some advisers worried that the final ads did not tell a compelling narrative.

Before Romney declared his candidacy, longtime friends from the business world urged him to focus on his managerial strengths, taking a page from his autobiographical book, "Turnaround," about his takeover of the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Romney's brand of get-it-done competence, they argued, would appeal broadly to Republicans and Democrats.

Romney's media consultants, Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, agreed. They recommended that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, focus far more heavily on his r¿sum¿ and his policy vision for the country, a strategy that would provide a road map for Republican voters trying to decide where the party was headed. The pair signed on to Romney's campaign in late August -- just one month after leaving McCain's campaign, where the duo had been serving as the lead media consultants.

But other advisers, including Alex Castellanos, the mustachioed media consultant who signed on with Romney's campaign in late 2006, favored a focus on ideology, arguing that Romney be cast as the second coming of President Ronald Reagan -- an optimist who wants to return the party to its conservative roots.

Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, dismissed the disagreements between advisers, saying the campaign embraces "creative dynamics and a set of diverse opinions that the governor actually prefers. He likes to feel that every angle has been explored."

The new message about change, which aides said tested well in focus groups conducted during Sunday night's debate on the Fox News Channel, was a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was left of Romney's original strategy that envisioned vaulting himself to the nomination by winning Iowa and New Hampshire. Although it did not propel him to victory in New Hampshire -- he came in second behind McCain -- Romney is sticking with it.

During a 3 1/2 -hour "message meeting" on Tuesday night to discuss the next steps of the campaign, there was agreement that the change theme is one that resonates with Republican voters, according to a participant.

"He is finding his voice," said Peter Barhydt, a top donor from Connecticut who did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

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