One fight for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is over. He will be the Republican presidential nominee this fall.
But, now a bigger challenge awaits. A slew of recent polling shows him running well behind President Obama and with some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential nominee at this time in the race.
Those numbers mean that Romney has to start adapting to his new political reality very quickly. Here’s five things he should do in the near future — and by that we mean the next month or so — to begin that process.
1. Sit down with some national media outlets. Yes, it’s self-serving for a reporter to say that a presidential candidate should do more interviews with the media. But, Romney should. His campaign team has severely limited his exposure to the media — his last press conference was March 16 in Puerto Rico(!) — and that strategy seems to have worked for the primary.
But, Romney needs a big megaphone to make sure general election voters who don’t know anything about him get a positive first introduction. And only the national media can provide that megaphone and serve as a sort of validator for him. Romney doesn’t need to sit down with The Fix — though that would be nice — but he does need to do a few interviews that allow him to tell (or re-tell) his story in a more positive light.
2. Put Ann Romney front and center. It’s an age-old political story: Voters actually like the spouse better than the candidate! Wow. How shocking/surprising/enlightening! Not really. (It makes perfect sense. The candidate has to make hard choices/decisions about things people care about. The spouse doesn’t.) In Romney’s case, however, his wife could be of critical importance when it comes to solving (or at least addressing) the women problem that has developed during the GOP primary.
Not only is Ann Romney’s personal story — she has battled breast cancer and has multiple sclerosis — compelling but she is also someone who can speak to how Mitt Romney has treated women throughout his life. She is his best surrogate to women. She needs to be out there regularly — maybe an appearance on “The View”, “Ellen” or the Fix family’s personal favorite of Hoda and Kathie Lee? — making the case that her husband knows and cares about the issues that matter to women.
3. Find ways to talk about Mormonism. Perhaps gun shy from the 2008 campaign in which it became clear that some of the hesitance toward Romney among evangelicals was due to his Mormon faith, the 2012 edition of his campaign has avoided talking in even the most basic terms about his religion.
While Romney doesn’t need to give a so-called “Mormon speech” like he did in 2007, he does need to find ways to talk about how his faith influences his life. Why? Because Romney has been someone deeply involved in the church for decades and it’s clear that his experience as a leader in that organization has influenced who he is and how he thinks about public service.
For a candidate who must find ways to make people believe that he a) is something more than a robotic businessman focused on the bottom line and b) possesses some level of empathy for them, talking about how his faith has informed and enriched his life is worth the gamble.
4. Get a good answer on health care. It’s clear from the early stages of the general election that President Obama and his political team believe that Romney’s work on health care as governor of Massachusetts creates an opening to neutralize the potential political negatives attached to the national health care law.
Romney managed to escape any sustained attacks on health care during the primary season by focusing not on the past but on the future: pledging to repeal the law.
But, that won’t likely be good enough in a general election in which the Obama campaign will argue that Romney’s criticism of the law is invalidated because he was one of its progenitors. He needs a short/pithy retort to the attack. And, no, we don’t mean the old Romney hit that his health care bill was 70 pages and Obama’s was 2,700 pages.
5. Find somewhere to break with conservatives: Romney will not lose this election because the base isn’t excited about him. (They aren’t but they dislike President Obama so much it should make up for any doubts they retain about Romney.) He will lose the election because voters in the political center viewed him as too much a creature of the ideological right for them to vote for. (In a recent Gallup/USA Today poll of 12 swing states, Romney trailed Obama by nine points among independents.)
What Romney needs to change that dynamic is a public break from the far ideological right of his party, a, for lack of a better description, “Sister Souljah” moment. He needs to prove to independents that he is not in the pocket of the tea party wing of the GOP, which, while it clearly helped Republicans win back the House in 2010, appears to be turning into something of a net negative in 2012.
Romney’s best (recent) opportunity to do just that came in the furor set off by Rush Limbaugh’s comments about a female Georgetown Law School student named Sandra Fluke. He passed on that chance — likely due to concerns about inflaming the conservative base right at the moment when the nomination seemed won (or close to it).
Now that Romney is the close-to-unquestioned nominee, he needs to find something to put a bit of distance between himself and the party’s right. And the sooner the better.