TAMPA — Mitt Romney has turned his attention to November’s presidential election, and the Republican establishment is beginning to fall in line behind him. Endorsements for him have grown from a stream to a flood this week, including from big names such as House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Consolidating support among elected officials and other party leaders is a necessary step for Romney, but it is an easy one given that the contest for the GOP nomination effectively ended a few weeks ago. Where Romney will have to work harder is in trying to persuade rank-and-file Republicans that he’s truly ready to take on President Obama.
That conclusion is based on two hours of lively and sometimes confounding conversation among a dozen Florida voters Tuesday night in the city where, barring unforeseen circumstances, Romney will accept the Republican nod in four months.
The participants consisted of Floridians who are either registered Republicans or are independents who generally support Republicans. All voted for Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, Marco Rubio for Senate in 2010 or Rick Scott for governor in 2010.
The 12 people do not in any way represent a scientific sample of the Florida electorate. But their discussion helped illuminate the conflicting issues that many voters are sorting out as the general-election campaign begins.
These Floridians are not classic swing voters. Instead, they are the kinds of people Romney needs to win this battleground state and the presidency. Many said positive things about him. They consider him a successful businessman and a devoted husband, father and grandfather. Many also are certain that they will vote for Romney.
The reasons have as much or more to do with their belief that Obama has been a failure and that his policies are fundamentally wrong for the country as they do with their pure enthusiasm for the likely Republican nominee. Their deep dislike for Obama’s policies existed even though several had positive views of him personally and expressed pride about the symbolism of him as the nation’s first African American president.
Although they are leaning toward or already behind Romney, they expressed reservations about him and his campaign. The concerns take two forms — personal and policy — but are intertwined. Romney remains an opaque and distant figure.
The former Massachusetts governor’s personal wealth is a big barrier to them. Even these sympathetic voters can’t relate personally to the man who wants to lead their party and the country. “He’s not coming across as a regular guy,” said Bruno Kazenas, a school music teacher.
“It’s hard to be around a guy with that much money,” said Jonathan Rosa, a deputy police officer. He added that it would take a lot to get him to support Obama but that he might back a third-party candidate over Romney.
Ron Romonchuk, a retired consultant, called Romney “a 1 percenter” who has never gotten his hands dirty. He recalled former president George H.W. Bush going to a “hole in the wall” restaurant while in office. “I don’t ever see Mitt Romney doing that,” Romonchuk said.
George Harasz, who works in sales in the steel industry, recalled that Obama sat in the stands like other spectators at a recent NCAA basketball tournament game, not in an owner’s box, “which is where I think Mitt Romney would sit and watch.”
Frank Stagliano, a retired headhunter who supports Obama, was caustic in his evaluation of Romney. “He has a hard time being a regular guy,” he said. “He makes it very obvious by putting jeans on. He picks up phrases from the particular parts of the country he’s in. . . . He tries to fit in too hard.”
Moderator Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who is conducting focus groups during the campaign for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, asked the group members whom they would most like to talk to at a dinner party: Romney or his wife, Ann.
They chose the candidate overwhelmingly — but not because they necessarily thought he would be the liveliest conversationalist. Some said they would ask for business advice. More said they would want to find out what he is really like. “I would like to see what kind of person he is on the inside,” said Theresa Crudele, a tech vendor.
Julie Saunders, a paralegal, said Romney seems “stiff, a little distant” and asked, “What is his true personality?” She wondered: Is he cool or buttoned-down? “I’m hoping he’s cool,” she said.
They were also concerned that, after all the months of campaigning and candidate debates, they don’t know what Romney stands for, beyond their belief that he would try to repeal Obama’s health-care law. “He just keeps flip-flopping to me,” said Debra Galloway, who works in the auto auction business.
A crystallizing moment in the discussion came as people described Romney as inconsistent. Brent Bennett, a computer programmer who says he will vote for Romney in November, summed it up with four words: “He rounds the edges.”
Hart asked him to expand on that description. “We want someone like [Rick] Santorum, like [Newt] Gingrich when he was at his best in debates, to have a position, to stick with the position and not apologize for that position and not shade your answer to a question that matches what the particular audience you’re in front of might want to hear,” he said.
Everyone in the room agreed, including John Nelson, a consultant and the strongest and most consistent Romney supporter.
“I raised my hand in agreement,” he said. “Mitt Romney got killed in most of the debates, but he survived,” he said. “And the rounding of the edges . . . is how he survived. He never took a firm position. That’s over. Now it’s the big leagues. He’s going to get curveballs and knuckle balls and his communication skills are not there yet.”
Others offered similar advice to Romney. “I would say: Stop outlining what the previous administration has done wrong and focus on what you’re going to do right,” Rosa said.
“Be consistent,” said Carin Caruso, who was laid off six months ago after three decades with her company.
“Play to win,” said Ben Drawdy, who works in the health-care industry. He voted for Obama in 2008 but is now leaning toward Romney. “Don’t just try not to make mistakes.”
What these voters were saying is they want to know who Romney is, what he really believes and what he would do as president. By the time he arrives here for the Republican National Convention in August, those questions should be answered.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.