Romney Homes In on a Message That Will Stick

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.

Yesterday, Romney flew to Michigan, where he was raised and his father once served as governor. The campaign has pulled its television ads in South Carolina and Florida to focus on Michigan, where advisers say he will make another attempt to secure what he calls "the gold medal." Aides say he will continue to emphasize the need to change Washington, but with a focus on Michigan's economic plight.

In a memo to supporters from senior strategist Alex Gage, the campaign argued that Romney's second-place finishes in both states puts him in a good position to eventually capture the nomination. "Gov. Romney actually beat John McCain among Republicans" on Tuesday, 35 percent to 34 percent, Gage wrote, "and most of the upcoming primaries and caucuses attract an electorate far more Republican than New Hampshire's."

But it may be too late. In Michigan, Romney faces both Huckabee, who is expected to do well among religious voters in western part of the state, and McCain, who won the state in 2000 and is riding a wave of good press from his stunning come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire. If Romney loses to one of them in Michigan, even some of his most loyal aides concede that his presidential campaign may be over.

That would be a dramatic end to a quest that has had the most money and the most meticulous organization of any Republican candidate. Yesterday, the campaign raised $5 million more in a single, national call-day event.

That Romney finds himself in a do-or-die race in Michigan was unimaginable as recently as last summer, as his focus on winning early-voting states seemed to being paying off. Polling put him at the head of the pack in both Iowa and New Hampshire, with his lead in the former seen as nearly impregnable.

In October, Romney began to spend far more time on the stump detailing his r¿sum¿ and presenting himself as the most competent to lead among the Republican field. His trademark PowerPoint presentation -- a remnant of his years in the private sector -- re-emerged as he made a more granular argument to voters about why he should win the nomination.

Romney insiders said a changing cast of opponents in Iowa and New Hampshire also complicated his attempt to settle on a closing message. Initially, Romney's campaign was preparing for a one-on-one race in Iowa against former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.); in New Hampshire, there was an expectation they would face off against former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

"Over the last year, things have been changing on a daily basis," a Romney fundraiser said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "McCain was the primary opponent a year ago. He dipped. Romney kept climbing. Then it was Rudy. Now he's dipped. And then came Huckabee. It's been like a moving target."

Advisers said Romney's rivals and the media relentlessly forced him to spend time defending his conservative credentials on illegal immigration, taxes, strengthening the military and his devotion to family values.

"The message was always going to be 'the turnaround guy.' That's the name of the book. But not just play him as a turnaround guy, because then you're Michael Dukakis, a bloodless technocrat. He's more than that," said one of his top consultants. "We had been distracted answering questions about whether the Bible was the literal word of God."

Romney was repeatedly forced to discuss the issue of his Mormon faith. Coverage of his speech about religious liberty in College Station, Tex., dominated the news for a week -- a development the campaign saw as positive, but one that also diverted attention away from the candidate's other messages.

Even as late as the night of the Iowa caucuses, the lingering doubts regarding Romney's faith surfaced. At one precinct caucus, Romney's designated advocate -- a longtime Republican activist from the area -- rose and gave his pitch for his candidate. He finished, sat down and the man next to him asked: "Are you a Mormon or a Christian? You can't be both."

Romney did not get back to the turnaround theme until after last week's shocker in Iowa, when he suddenly tossed aside efforts to portray himself as the campaign's true conservative and embraced a new message of "change" in Washington.

While "change" was touted as Romney's new and improved message, it was, one senior strategist pointed out, a return to an idea that had first appeared in the campaign's ads all the way back in the spring.

In one ad, which ran in Iowa, Romney says "we have an opportunity to really make a change in this country," adding: "I've brought change to every institution I've touched. I am going to work like crazy to go to Washington and bring change there."

"To hear them act like change is a new, exciting thing that Romney is talking about is just galling," said one senior Romney campaign strategist.

Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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