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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Campaign 2012

Romney's Likability Tour

The rich, buttoned-down former CEO launches a nationally televised charm offensive.

Mitt Romney delivers the Top Ten list on Letterman.(CBS/Worldwide Pants)

photo of Beth Reinhard
December 21, 2011

Dare to be unmoved by Mitt Romney talking about his wife’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.

“She couldn't take care of the family in the way she had in the past,’’ he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “And I said, look, I don't care what the meals are like. You know, I like cold cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. We could do fine with that as long as we have each other."

Romney's touching recollection during his first sit-down with a Sunday news show in nearly two years is part of a nationally televised charm offensive. After months of leading the pack but failing to close the deal, the buttoned-down, well-heeled Republican presidential candidate is trying to get voters to see him as a nice guy and a family man who puts on his pants like the rest of us, one leg at a time.

 

Since the Fox News Sunday interview, Romney has also poked fun at his perfectly coiffed hair on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman (wearing khakis and no tie) and discussed the rejection he endured as a struggling missionary with the chummy crowd on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Twitter followers know he shook hands with the popular television personality Regis Philbin after the MSNBC appearance.

Even these lighter moments are nearly as carefully scripted as Romney’s overall campaign. He deadpanned his self-deprecating jokes on Letterman, but he didn’t come up with the “Top Ten List’’ himself. The late-night comic’s staff wrote the jokes for him.

Scripted or not, it’s worth trying, given Romney’s likability gap. “As the electorate reaches a critical judgment phase, these are opportunities to show he’s a father, a grandfather, a husband, and at times, the corniest joke-teller you ever met,’’ said Republican consultant Kevin Madden, who worked as Romney’s campaign spokesman in 2008. “They know Mitt Romney as a competent chief executive, and there is an appetite to know this other side of him."

Romney said his attempts to get voters to learn about him "on a personal basis" will continue.

“So far, most people have only seen me in debates," he said Wednesday on MSNBC. "Debates are fine, but they're a series of 60-second answers. As you get to run a campaign and people really focus on what you're doing and you get chances to speak with people like you, they see you in a setting where you're not confined to 30-second or 60-second answers but you can instead speak on a more extensive basis, so I think people get an understanding of why I'm running for president.”

The softer, more personal side Romney is displaying during his national media tour contrasts starkly with his robotic image, awkwardness on the trail, and the nasty attack ads against Newt Gingrich aired by a so-called super PAC created on his behalf.

“Newt has a ton of baggage,’’ chirps the ad by Restore our Future running frequently in Iowa. Romney tried to distance himself from the group, joking on Morning Joe that he would land in the "big house" if he was proven to be involved with the super PAC.

While Romney has received praise for his disciplined campaign, a few missteps have helped his critics portray him as insensitive and out of touch with ordinary Americans. There was the time in a Tampa diner when the multimillionaire quipped to a handful of job-seekers, “I’m also unemployed." More recently, he offered to bet rival Rick Perry "10,000 bucks" over a dispute in a nationally televised debate.

Romney has tried to counter the criticism of him as an elitist by emphasizing his economic plan’s focus on helping the middle class. “The people who have been hurt in the Obama economy are not the wealthy. The wealthy are doing just fine,” Romney said on Fox News Sunday. “The people that have been hurt are people in the middle class."

A focus group conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center about three weeks ago revealed some of Romney’s challenges in the homestretch of the primary campaign. The group described him as "vanilla," having "no charisma," and "manufactured." Most participants gave him high marks on competence, but when asked to compare him to a member of their family, they chose more distant relations: "neighbor," "cousin," and "the dad who’s never home." By contrast, Gingrich was described as a "grandfather" and "favorite uncle."

To be sure, Romney is not the only Republican candidate with a likability problem. Just 24 percent of Americans feel positively toward Gingrich compared to 40 percent who have a negative view, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Romney was received positively by 24 percent and negatively by 32 percent. The gap was smaller for Ron Paul, but his numbers were still upside down.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll also suggests a lack of enthusiasm for the current crop of Republican candidates. Barely a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view Romney and Gingrich as willing to say what they actually believe.

Don’t underestimate the power of the sympathy vote, Republican strategists say. Democratic nominee Al Gore’s stiff demeanor was a major liability in the 2000 campaign against the more affable Bush. In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emotional moment at a New Hampshire coffee shop was widely credited with boosting her support in the primary one day later.

“The Romney campaign realized that getting him out on national television was a necessity, and for him to talk about things like his family and missionary work which are points of pride," said Reed Galen, who worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2007. “If voters are choosing between someone they like versus someone they don’t like, they are going to vote for the guy they like."

WATCH: Highlights of Romney on Letterman on Monday:

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