I caught up with the newest addition to the Mitt Romney campaign, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. He was on the road, but in a series of e-mail exchanges he gave Right Turn his take on the race. He is joining the campaign as a senior adviser, although he’s volunteering his time.
His experience in helping Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell win in a landslide may be more useful than he ever imagined. He tells me, “Bob McDonnell showed that a principled conservative can win big in a swing state, and he did it by talking about not only the features of conservative policies but the benefits. In other words, he didn’t just talk about keeping taxes low, he said that would help create jobs and enable people to decide for themselves how best to spend their hard earned money. We called it ‘finishing the sentence,’ and there is a valuable lesson in Gov. McDonnell’s success.”
Although Gillespie didn’t mention it, McDonnell also avoided getting bogged down in social issues in a race in which Democrats strained to raise wedge issues. That’s a wise pattern for Romney to follow as well.
Unlike President Obama, who seems determined to veer left, Gillespie has his eye on critical independent voters. It is not a matter of Romney changing his message but making sure his message is heard. Gillespie observes: “There is ample evidence in public polling that independents like Obama personally but have doubts about his leadership ability and ability to get things done. There’s a sense he’s wasted a lot of time in office on things that haven’t helped make things better for average Americans.” That suggests that Romney can do damage but should avoid shrill personal attacks. Gillespie agrees: “There is an opening there in the general election.”
Gillespie does not seem worried about unifying the Republican base. He contends, “Gov. Romney got more votes from conservatives in the GOP primary than any other candidate, and in a general election conservatives will be enthusiastic to put a stop to President Obama’s policies. I think our base will be energized by the very clear contrast between the president and our nominee in the fall election.” In other words, despite Rick Santorum’s last-gasp argument, the difference between Romney and Obama will be so vast that conservatives seeking to halt the Obama march leftward should be keen on electing Romney.
Right now polling shows a dramatic gender gap between Romney and Obama. But Gillespie insists that any concern about this is overblown. He tells me, “Both parties have had a gender gap for decades, with Republicans underperforming with women and Democrats underperforming with men.” He hints that the key to reducing it is a more refined economic message that focuses “on the damaging effects of President Obama’s policies when it comes to their jobs or their children’s opportunities, the cost and quality of health care, the higher prices for gas and food.” He argues women voters, in particular, are “not going to be distracted by the administration’s diversionary tactics and harsh rhetoric.” He claims, “That gap will close.”
With an anemic recovery underway, Romney has to walk a fine line between skewering the president’s policies and avoiding the appearance of talking down the economy. Gillespie turns the issue around: “Ironically it’s President Obama who seems to be talking down the economy, or at least lowering expectations. Suddenly ‘could be worse’ is supposed to be the norm for us. I don’t believe the American people believe that stagnant growth, unemployment at 8 percent, record high food stamp enrollments, massive debt and government control of our economy is really the new normal, as the administration seems to think it is.” Gillespie advances the idea that Romney will be the sunny optimist: “When Gov. Romney talks about the dreamers and entrepreneurs and the free enterprise system as the best means to lift millions out of poverty and provide for upward mobility, he taps into the innate optimism of the american people.”
Some Republicans, including many Romney supporters, think the extended primary has damaged Romney for the general election. Gillespie gives a less bleak assessment: “No doubt this has been a bruising primary, but I think it has been a net positive for Mitt Romney in terms of being a stronger standard bearer for our party and our principles.” Somewhere between Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Bain Capital and the harangues from Rick Santorum, Romney did formulate detailed and conservative positions on spending, taxes, entitlement and foreign affairs. In his last debate, he essentially leveled Santorum, and he then began in a series of victory speeches to make a more positive appeal based on free markets. Gillespie asserts: “I think he learned a lot from the other candidates, proved to be a strong debater, put together a national organization and found a compelling voice in terms of freedom itself being on the ballot in November.”
Republicans hope he is right. Gillespie is an experienced hand that should give Republicans some comfort. But even the best staff is at the mercy of its candidate. Romney will need to reassure the base while reaching out to moderates, to cut down on gaffes but find a way to connect with voters, and to indict Obama’s record without seeming mean-spirited. No one ever said this was going to be easy.