The Washington Post

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign stuck in lukewarm

Republicans are expressing fresh concerns that Mitt Romney is limping toward the presidential nomination, suffering new blows at the very moment he needs to grow stronger if he is to take on President Obama in November.

Even before Rick Santorum’s surprising sweep of three contests on Tuesday, the Romney campaign was receiving a steady stream of advice — and warnings — from Republicans who are increasingly anxious about Romney’s performance, which has not improved over nearly six weeks since the state caucuses and primaries began.

One prominent adviser told the candidate to sharpen his use of conservative code words and create “small pictures” — vivid imagery, in other words — to connect with voters. Another flew to Boston to say that Romney’s message is too businesslike and broad to capture the passion of angry Republican voters. Still others have gone on television and written opinion columns to hammer home what is becoming a common theme this year: that Romney has not been able to ignite a cause when the GOP is primed to become part of one.

After Romney’s three wins, five losses and his solid lead in delegates, most Republicans said they still think he will win the nomination.

But they see a candidate who lacks broad support among conservatives, and whose recent defeats reveal that his organization is not quite as unstoppable as many supporters had thought.

What appeared to be a sure win may become one of Romney’s toughest tests. The Feb. 28 primary in Michigan — his home state and the place where his father served as governor — is shaping up to be a much more difficult race for him. Despite his extensive network and widespread name recognition, Romney must contend with a new surge of popularity for Santorum, a former senator whose modest background in western Pennsylvania may resonate with Michigan’s embattled autoworkers. In a strike from the other direction, Democrats in Michigan are criticizing Romney over his opposition to the federal bailout of the auto industry.

“It’s a bit of a wake-up call for Governor Romney,” said one of the candidate’s advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “He’s obviously got to sharpen the message and clarify the vision — particularly for activists who are more likely to participate in these contests.”

After Tuesday, Romney’s team appears to be listening. There is agreement, one adviser said, that the candidate must liven up his road show, injecting energy into a stale stump and resuming the kind of town-hall events that let him interact with voters. He will hold his first such event since Jan. 13 on Friday in Portland, Maine. The state’s caucuses will end Saturday.

Romney is not expected to move too far to the right to accommodate the party base, the adviser said, adding, “You can’t make him who he’s not.” All of the Romney advisers interviewed declined to speak for attribution, saying they are not authorized to do so.

The changes under discussion appear relatively modest and may not alter the dynamics of the race. Romney intends to continue his heavy focus on the economy — an area that is considered Obama’s greatest vulnerability — and to try to demonstrate his command of facts and policy on issues such as Social Security, Israel, housing and the environment, one adviser said. His supporters have called for a deeper evaluation of his message, saying he lacks the kind of inspirational rallying cry that could begin to shut down his rivals.

Even Romney’s supporters acknowledge that he cannot afford to lose another contest right away. He is pushing hard in the Maine caucuses, followed by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.

On Thursday, Romney appeared to temper hopes about Michigan.

“I’m not expecting a landslide. I can’t tell you 100 percent that I’ll win,” he said in a Fox Business Network interview. “I’m planning on it, and I’m going to work hard for it. And I think the people of Michigan understand that this is the chance to select as our nominee a person who was born and raised in Michigan, who understands Michigan values and who will do everything in his power to get Michigan working again.”

Romney noted that, in 2008, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) lost 19 states before winning the GOP nomination.

A strong view remains among many Republicans that Tuesday’s nonbinding contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, in which no delegates were awarded, were less damaging to Romney than news reports have let on. The real loser Tuesday, many of these Republicans said, is former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was banking on a two-man race with Romney and now must compete with Santorum for the conservative mantle.

“They are playing Santorum and Gingrich off each other,” said one outside adviser, referring to the Romney officials. “They’re basically like whack-a-mole. This week, they’re whacking Santorum; last week, it was Gingrich. The goal is to keep the anti-Romney vote 100 percent split.”

There is also a strong view that Romney should be careful not to stray too far from who he is.

“The worst thing you can do is to be something you’re not,” said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), who ran for president before endorsing Romney. “I think Governor Romney knows that. He’ll continue to be Governor Romney. The last thing Americans need to see in the Republican primary is for people to try to pretend to do something they’re not.”

Still, the need for that whack-a-mole strategy, several Republicans said, speaks to Romney’s seeming inability to excite the GOP’s conservative base.

As if to acknowledge the point, the candidate met privately with leaders at a conservative political conference in Washington on Thursday before his address there Friday.

Republicans also fear that Romney’s scorched-earth strategy may drive down the voter enthusiasm he would need for a fall campaign.

And that’s why the advice has rolled in, some of it contradictory: to hit Santorum harder; to stop hitting Santorum; to talk up his management experience; to stop running as a manager and start using the language of a movement; to rehire Brett O’Donnell, a debate coach who was fired last week after Romney advisers bristled at the credit he received for the candidate’s debate performances in Florida; even to stop saying “enterprise” when he means “business.” (“Does anyone know what that means?” one adviser asked. “The public thinks ‘enterprise’ is either a car-rental place or Captain Kirk’s ship. It’s just a lot of annual-report talk as opposed to kitchen-table talk.”)

“He’s been trying to win this with overwhelming throw weight — with more money, negative ads and manpower,” said a former Romney adviser, Alex Castellanos. “They’re trying to win this tactically in each state, separate from the other, which gets expensive and long. Either he elevates his purpose, he elevates from a campaign to a cause, or the big Romney bulldozer has to now turn, grindingly slow and powerful, and crush everything in its path.”

Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.