It’s bad enough that Mitt Romney doesn’t excite the conservative Republican Party base. Or that he’s often stiff and uncomfortable on the campaign trail. But now he has suffered the ultimate indignity: Being called bland and boring by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a candidate rarely accused of being Mr. Excitement.
So far this has not been a fatal flaw for Romney and in fact it may be helping him maintain his front-runner standing. He has emerged as the most disciplined of the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination, a sign that he learned from his failed campaign four years ago. His supporters may at times pine for a little more sizzle on the stump, but his strategists understand that surprises are rarely good for a candidate. Their man is on the verge of a big win in New Hampshire. Romney and his team see the nomination within reach and believe that voters in November will value substance over charisma.
Santorum clearly had Romney in mind when he warned this week in a fundraising letter that the party must not “get stuck with a bland, boring, career politician who will lose to Barack Obama.” Other Republicans, more privately, worry that a Romney-Obama match in the fall will feature an excitement gap that will be tough to bridge.
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Romney’s most enthusiastic backers, has publicly acknowledged his candidate’s failure to excite. When he went to Iowa to campaign for Romney, some who came to the events confessed that they wished he were the candidate instead of the more restrained Romney. But Christie insists excitement will come with winning primaries and securing the nomination. “Everybody can agree that Mitt Romney and I don’t have the same style. That’s fine and Mitt would admit that himself,” Christie said in a recent interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Asked why Romney doesn’t “own the stage,” Christie said not even Ronald Reagan achieved that until he had won some contests.
“Do I wish that Mitt would be a little edgier and a little bolder? Sure, and I’ve told him that.... But he is who he is,” said Christie. He said qualifications will trump charisma. “If you look at what he's done, of the people standing up on that stage offering themselves to be president, he's so far and away the best-qualified person of the Republicans to be the president, that I know my party's going to nominate him. And when they do, the president's going to be in for a fight.”
Maybe so. But Obama has a couple of advantages, including a rousing campaign-stump style and a dramatic place in history as the first African-American president. At this still-early stage, Romney remains a front-runner with a vanilla image. This weekend a liberal super Pac ad running in New Hampshire compares Romney to the Ken doll. “Both are frequently described as plastic,” said the ad, created by the PAC American LP.
A recent Parade magazine interview with Romney’s wife, Ann, didn’t help. On his iPod? Beatles, Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, and Roy Orbison. In his fridge? Low-fat milk (because he’s “a big cereal hound. He loves cold cereal.”). Favorite drink? Chocolate milk. Morning substitute for a Mormon who abstains from coffee? Hot chocolate.
Even Romney has made self-deprecating remarks about his buttoned-down personality. He joked about it to supporters in Sioux City who had come to see him on New Year’s Eve. “What do you have planned later?” he asked. “Not much,” the crowd shouted back. Somewhat poignantly, the candidate responded, “I hope I'm not the highlight of the evening; that'd be a pretty sad evening.”
Romney’s lack of sizzle has not hurt him so far in part because the rest of the field is better known for sweater vests, cowboy boots, and Tiffany jewelry than for inspirational political skills. “Voters do not have an overwhelmingly charismatic alternative,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California. “If you have the good luck of an even more uncharismatic opponent, you can win. But that will not be the case against Obama. In Romney versus Obama, Obama wins the Charisma Bowl.”
That does not mean, of course, that Obama would win the White House against Romney. “Is Romney boring? The answer is, so what?” said Stephen Hess, a former White House aide who is an expert on the presidency. “Historically, that is the answer. Very few made it to the White House on charisma.” He added, “Charisma is an asset. It is better to have it than not to have it. But historically very few had it, and as often as not, those who had it did not even get to be the nominee of their party.”
Tom Rath, the former New Hampshire attorney general who is a senior adviser to Romney, says too many people use the word “boring” when they see somebody who could be described as a policy wonk. “He loves policy. He loves nuance of policy. He loves thinking through policy,” Rath said. He added that Romney is “entirely focused and very task-driven” by the campaign.
A veteran of many presidential campaigns, Rath said Romney is ready to show more of his personality to voters. He acknowledged that unlike campaigns for lower-level offices, voters want to forge a personal link to their president. Rath recalled a conversation in 1988 with a national Republican explaining why he would not be scared out of running for president by what appeared to be a strong campaign being put together by then-Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
“He said the people of the United States do not want to wake up every day for four years with Phil Gramm as their president,” said Rath. “So even though he had a very strong New Hampshire-kind of fiscal-conservative side, the personal side of it was always going to be a problem for him. You do need some degree of personality.”
As the campaign moves on to much bigger states where the personal connection is less significant, Bebitch suggested that Romney’s biggest challenge will not be a lack of charisma but rather something else hinted at in the “plastic” ad. “It is not so much a question of being boring,” she said. “He just doesn’t ring authentic. Charisma is good, but better is authenticity or a perception of authenticity by the voters. And I think that is where Romney fails and that is part of what the Obama campaign is going to focus on.”
Sarah Boxer of CBS News contributed contributed to this article.