The Washington Post

As more voters tune in, Romney tries to take control of his brand

Once Mitt Romney took the stage in New Hampshire last week to declare victory before hundreds of supporters chanting his name, he chastised President Obama. But he did not demonize him. Romney tried to identify with anxious Americans and said he could both fix the economy and unite the country. And he adapted Obama’s 2008 hope as his own: “We still believe,” Romney said. “We still believe.”

Just as his opponents were trying to cast him as a “vulture capitalist,” Romney projected steadiness and warmth in a handsome tableau with his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Ann, their five sons, daughters-in-law and well-mannered grandchildren. The aspirational American family.

The next day, Romney unveiled his first Spanish-language TV advertisement in South Florida. It’s an uplifting, even gauzy spot narrated by his Spanish-speaking son, Craig. The title: “Nosotros,” or “Us.” The message: In Mitt Romney’s America, anything is possible.

And, as in every other Romney ad, it ended with a black-and-white still photograph of Mitt and Ann holding hands on a windswept farm. Again, steadiness and warmth.

These are the ways, overt and subtle, that Romney is sharpening his brand. The Republican presidential front-runner’s immediate objective is to polish off his rivals by winning the next two primaries — Saturday in South Carolina and Jan. 31 in Florida. But with the race quickly moving beyond the early states, Romney also is trying to market himself to millions of voters in all the other states who are tuning in and forming their first impressions.

“As the megaphone gets bigger, you want to just continue that message that you’ve been building upon,” Romney adviser Russ Schriefer said. “This is ultimately going to be a contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama — the choice between what Mitt Romney will be talking and campaigning about and what Barack Obama has been doing, and competing visions for America.”

To many voters, Romney is an enigmatic candidate, and the battle to brand him is underway in South Carolina. The conse­quences are likely to ripple across the country and, if he becomes the nominee, set the terms for the general-election fight with Obama.

Some of the other Republican candidates are trying to create a devastating portrait of Romney. They are attacking his work found­ing and running Bain Capital, a venture-capital and corporate-buyout firm, by accusing him of prioritizing profits over workers. Supporters of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) are airing a caustic documentary, “The King of Bain,” which depicts Romney as a greedy Wall Street raider who traveled the country slashing jobs, pocketing millions and having his shoes polished on airport tarmacs.

Romney’s campaign is trying to paint a dramatically different portrait — one of a caring family man with a deep and abiding faith in God and in America’s founding principles. The former Massachusetts governor presents himself as a conservative businessman who created thousands of jobs and repaired broken institutions, and as a stable and moral leader whom voters can trust at the tiller.

High-profile validators, such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), are campaigning alongside Romney and offering personal testimonials. And in TV ads and stump speeches across this state, Romney is responding to the Bain attacks with a forceful embrace of free market capitalism.

“It’s worked to the governor’s advantage because he gets to be the premier defender of free enterprise and free markets in fighting off attacks by Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry and others,” Romney adviser Kevin Madden said.

But some unaligned Republicans warned that if Romney’s opponents — Gingrich and Texas Gov. Perry now and, in a would-be general election, Obama — successfully stoke the public’s ire at Wall Street, Romney may not be able to fully inoculate himself on the issue.

“It is not a simple issue, but voters will look at it simply. And the simple version ain’t pretty for Romney. Voters are not going to get an MBA class in private equity,” said Mark McKinnon, a top strategist on the McCain and Bush campaigns. “The danger is that the experience that qualified Romney to be the GOP nominee in the primary election may in the end be the issue that disqualifies him in the general election. Team Obama knows the power of this issue.”

Nowhere was Romney’s branding effort more blatant than in his New Hampshire victory speech last Tuesday night. His advisers expected he would win, and they knew that would afford Romney a chance to address the country in prime time. So a carefully choreographed campaign became especially so on this night.

In a big room one floor above the cafeteria at Southern New Hampshire University, aides arrayed sign-waving supporters on stadium bleachers in the round, making a crowd of hundreds look like one of thousands. A giant banner behind them trumpeted the Romney slogan: “BELIEVE IN AMERICA.”

About 20 minutes after the polls closed and the networks declared Romney the winner, a beaming Ann Romney traipsed on stage, joined by her five sons. Then the Romney anthem, Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” began thumping and the candidate burst into view.

“Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” the crowd chanted.

Romney parked himself in front of his teleprompters and gave his speech. Those 11 minutes contained some of the punchiest prose of his campaign. (“The president has run out of ideas; now he’s running out of excuses,” he said.) After months of trying out different lines, Romney settled on a message that marries stinging criticism of Obama’s policies with optimism that everything can get better.

“If you believe that the disappointments of the last few years are a detour, not a destiny, then I’m asking for your vote,” Romney said.

Even some of Romney’s conservative critics lauded the speech, calling it an expression of conviction from a candidate who often seems to lack it. Romney’s new speechwriter, Lindsay Hayes, who previously penned speeches for Sarah Palin, wrote it with help from his chief strategist, Stuart Stevens. The candidate made extensive edits on his iPad, aides said, and practiced to improve his cadence.

“That speech by Romney was a unifying speech; it wasn’t a divisive speech,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political rhetoric and communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “You need to hear from a candidate optimism about the future and a projected capacity to realize that future together, and Romney’s speech did that.”

As Romney finished, his grandchildren rushed on stage to join him. Together, they waved.

“It’s difficult to look at that picture and say, yes, he woke up in the morning and decided to eliminate entire companies and throw large numbers of people out of work because all he cares about is money,” Jamieson said. “The visual rebuttal is devoted family and wife — and look at those adorable grandchildren!”

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Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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