Toast Is Served

By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 1, 2008

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Willard Mitt Romney was here in the home of Charlene and Greg Bennett on Thursday morning for a "kitchen table discussion" to tout his economic policies when his thoughts wandered to repasts past.

"My mom made pancakes every single morning at our house," he said, with a smile of fond reminiscence. He stopped abruptly. "My wife!" he corrected. "I called her my mom. My wife."

Let's cut Romney some slack for his lapse: He's been under a great deal of stress lately. An hour before Romney's arrival at the Bennett residence, his main rival for the GOP presidential nomination, John McCain, had basked in the endorsement of the California governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The previous afternoon, McCain picked up the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani as America's Mayor dropped out of the race. The day before that, McCain beat Romney in the Florida primary.

As it turns out, Romney couldn't even close the deal with the Bennetts, the one family Romney chose to visit from among California's nearly 40 million inhabitants. "I'm not sure yet," Charlene Bennett said on her front lawn when asked if Romney's kitchen-table talk had won her vote.

Also on the Bennetts' front lawn, the Associated Press's Glen Johnson asked the question on everybody's mind: "How do you address the perception building out there that this thing is getting away from you?" Before Romney could answer that, Johnson added: "Can you explain how you're going to fight back, whether or not you're willing to continue to invest your own money in your cause?"

Evidently, Romney was not willing to put good money after bad. "I have authorized a seven-figure -- I won't give you the exact number -- but a seven-figure advertising buy for our campaign," the candidate said. That's mere pocket change for a guy who was said to be worth $250 million before he pumped $35 million of his fortune into his campaign. "But frankly, at this stage, I don't think anyone will be advertising on a per-person basis the level we did in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and Florida." With a rueful chuckle, he added: "Some of us wish we had invested less early and could do more now."

Of course, Romney could do much more now. And the fact that he isn't making a major purchase of television ads before Republicans in more than 20 states vote on Tuesday suggests that Romney -- an investor by training -- doesn't like his chances of wresting the nomination from McCain. Romney's money is his mojo: If he's not spending, he probably isn't winning.

Last year, the former management consultant's cash infusion turned his campaign into a hot start-up. But free-spending ways, with much of the money going to ads trashing opponents, may also have contributed to his downfall by turning his competitors against him. Sam Brownback and Giuliani both backed McCain when they quit the race, and now Mike Huckabee, an early target of Romney's ads, is refusing to pull out -- stealing conservative votes from Romney.

"A lot of it is your own money," McCain lectured Romney in Wednesday night's debate in California. "You're free to do with it what you want to. You can spend it all," continued McCain, who has likened his dealings with Romney to wrestling with a pig. "But the fact is that your negative ads, my friend, have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign."

And Romney seems to have discovered that money hasn't bought him the love of influential Republicans, such as Schwarzenegger in California and Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, who also went with McCain. "All you guys are family," he told supporters in Florida after about $3 million spent there failed to produce a victory. But "don't expect to be part of the inheritance," he added. "I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this."

Personal finance was still on Romney's mind when he arrived at the Bennett residence, a middle-class home with a Valentine-themed flag flying from the front porch and an American flag sticker in the window with the words "We Remember" above it. The family engaged him in small talk on the porch about football and practical jokes, but Romney wanted to get to work. "Well, should we go inside?" he requested pointedly.

Once there, he announced his intentions: "I want to ask you about money." But while Romney wanted to talk about health premiums and retirement savings, Charlene Bennett wanted to talk about Romney's money. "You said we're all family and that you'd include us in your inheritance," she said.

Romney chuckled. "There's nothing left," he said -- then changed the subject.

Without major spending on ads, Romney had to do what he could to earn "free" media -- so he stepped to the microphone on the Bennetts' front lawn for the first of the day's two news conferences. CNN's John King invited Romney to criticize McCain, and Romney accepted, first calling the senator a "man of character" before identifying his recent actions as "disingenuous and not honorable" and "reminiscent of the Nixon era."

It was a good bit of pig wrestling, but not the sort of thing that could keep up with Schwarzenegger's endorsement ("I'd love to have had his support," Romney acknowledged), and no replacement for an advertising blitz. "I don't think it's possible to flood the airwaves in 22 states," he said.

For the $250 million man, that was close to a concession speech.

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