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Magazine / POLITICS

Center Field

Romney ran the primary campaign as if he had already won the nomination. How well did it set him up to face Obama?

Brand management: Romney parried criticism that he is an out-of-touch plutocrat partly by campaigning with his family.(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

photo of Beth Reinhard
January 12, 2012

NASHUA, N.H.—“Barack Obama has failed America,” Mitt Romney declared amid tractors and hay bales at a verdant New Hampshire farm about 50 miles northwest of here. The president made the recession “worse, and he made it last longer,” Romney argued. The former corporate executive added that he was better suited to turning the economy around because “if you want to create jobs, it helps to have had a job.” Word for word, the pitch sounds awfully like Romney’s stump speech in the waning days of the New Hampshire campaign, as polls showed him coasting to victory in the nation’s first primary and closing in on the Republican nomination.

But Romney delivered that critique at the farm in Stratham on June 2, 2011—the day he officially launched his campaign for president, long before his competition jelled or the nomination seemed inevitable. “If you go back and read that, which we do regularly, you’ll see he’s been consistent,” says Romney adviser Stuart Stevens. “Our goal was to be able to give the same speech the day before the general election, were he lucky enough to be the nominee.”

Republicans usually steer to the right during the primary campaign to appease conservatives, and then scurry back toward the Democratic and independent voters they need to win the general election, but Romney has been running down the middle from the start. His careful posture makes him a potentially formidable challenger to President Obama, although it also explains the relatively limited enthusiasm for him in his own party. On the economy, on foreign policy, and on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, Romney has positioned himself as conservative—but not too conservative.

 

Instead of outflanking his opponents on the right, he quotes from “America the Beautiful.” It’s less red meat, more red, white, and blue. “On the whole, Romney is very well positioned for the general,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a top domestic-policy adviser on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign who stayed neutral this time. “He has been extremely disciplined in this campaign, much more so than in 2008, and has largely contrasted himself with the president. He’s been positioning himself for the general election this entire time.”

Still, Romney is far enough to the right that Democrats will try to brand him as a conservative extremist. His support for the upper-income tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, coupled with his tepid backing of a payroll-tax cut, shows his disdain for the middle class, they say. They point to his praise for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed overhaul of entitlement programs as evidence he would dismantle Social Security and Medicare. His hard-line stance against illegal immigrants—he rejects giving legal status even to college students or the members of the armed forces—demonstrates callousness toward the Hispanic community, the argument goes. Weeks before Romney won his first nominating contest, Obama’s allies began attacking him as a tea party-worshipping Republican ideologue. “He’s going to have to answer for those positions in the general,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, holding court in the spin room after a recent GOP primary debate.

Romney’s 2008 campaign raised his national profile, taught him the pitfalls of a GOP primary, and honed his debating skills.

Now that the general-election campaign is all but under way, the Republican Party is framing the race as a referendum on Obama’s stewardship of the economy. The Democratic Party is casting it as a choice between the president and a corrupt challenger. “The old law in politics is, ‘You think I’m bad? Meet the other guy.’ That’s going to be the Obama campaign,” says Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who has worked for Romney but is neutral in the 2012 race. “The challenge for Romney, if he’s the nominee, is going to be: How does he keep it focused on the failures of the president and still show a forward vision?” It’s a good thing, then, that the former Massachusetts governor spent the last year setting up that theme rather than bickering with GOP challengers.

ASSETS AND LIABILITIES

Romney was able to run a general-election campaign during 2011 because he had run for president before. His 2008 campaign raised his national profile, taught him the pitfalls of a Republican primary, and honed his debating skills. Boasting the strongest and best-financed organization in the 2012 field, Romney has consistently campaigned from a position of strength. He amassed $24 million in the past three months; the next-best Republican fundraiser, Ron Paul, raised $13 million. None of Romney’s rivals has posed a sustained threat so far, allowing him to focus on Obama. The only two competitors the Romney team ever worried about were Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are heading toward their last stand in South Carolina after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Perry stumbled badly in debates, and Romney and the other contenders savaged him as soft on immigration; a super PAC bankrolled by Romney’s allies depicted Gingrich as a Washington insider with “too much baggage” and helped topple him from his temporary front-runner’s perch.

Romney’s single-minded  approach—focused on the economy, above all—was evident during last week’s debate in New Hampshire, when he refused to allow ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos to draw him into a hypothetical debate over contraception. Romney ducked the question about states banning birth control by insisting it was moot. “Contraception, it’s working just fine. Leave it alone,” Romney quipped, closing off the exchange that could have pushed him off his fiscal message.

In contrast, his less-seasoned rival, Rick Santorum, recently allowed himself to be dragooned into a long back-and-forth with a college student in which he compared gay marriage to polygamy. At another campaign stop in New Hampshire, Santorum said in response to a question, “We always need a Jesus candidate.” Acting more like a culture warrior than a champion of the working class in the Granite State—where nearly half of the Republican primary voters are independents—seemed to sap the momentum from Santorum’s extraordinarily close second-place finish in Iowa.

Romney’s discipline is hard-earned. In his last presidential campaign, he tried desperately to placate social conservatives despite a wishy-washy record on abortion and gay rights. Now, the former corporate executive rarely strays from the kitchen-table concerns that voters say are paramount. “He’s run a campaign focused on the issues,” said GOP consultant Kevin Madden, another Romney adviser, who served as spokesman in the 2008 campaign. “The issues right now are who’s going to put the economy back on track.”

Despite a nearly flawless primary campaign, Romney did make a handful of blunders that the left-wing attack machine will use to smear him as a heartless corporate elitist. “Corporations are people, my friend,” he told a heckler at the Iowa State Fair back in August. “I’m also unemployed,” the multimillionaire confided to a handful of job-seeking Tampa residents. In New Hampshire this week, he tried to forge the personal connection with his audience that often eludes him but instead came off as a privileged plutocrat. “I know what it’s like to worry about whether you’re going to get fired,” said Romney, who comes from a wealthy family and has graduate degrees in law and business. “There were a couple times I wondered if I was going to get a pink slip.”

Democrats have been collecting anecdotes like these, especially the ones that depict Romney as an elitist. “He’s consistently said things that show his callous indifference to the middle class and working families, and there will be a dramatic contrast in November between the two directions that voters can choose to go,” Wasserman Schultz warned. Activists handed out pink notices to voters filtering out of a Romney event on Sunday in Nashua. “Let’s make him feel what getting a pink slip is really like,” it read. “Terminate his candidacy for cause.” And they excerpted a quote to make it sound like the Republican fires employees cavalierly. (“I like being able to fire people,” he said, endorsing people’s decision to ditch low-quality insurance companies.) Democrats are trying to turn Romney’s greatest asset—his success in the business world—into a character flaw.

INTO THE STRETCH

But Romney has prepared for these salvos, too. Although his economic plan cuts taxes on corporations and the rich, he talks a lot about helping the middle class. He avoided the radical flat tax that some of his rivals endorsed. “Romney put out something middle-of-the-road,” said Holtz-Eakin, who is president of the American Action Forum, a center-right advocacy group. “That looks like a conscious decision to me. If you read his 59-point plan, it reads like a general-election plan.”

To defend against the not-one-of-us attacks expected to dominate the general election, Romney has also put his picture-perfect family front and center. He never fails to introduce his wife of 42 years as his “sweetheart” and remind audiences that they met as teenagers. Their five sons and grandchildren were on the campaign trail last week in New Hampshire. He talks about his candidacy like he won the lottery. “This chance to run for president of the United States—I never imagined it,” Romney, who ran for the Senate in 1994, for governor in 2002, and for president in 2008, told the crowd in Rochester. “This is just a very strange and unusual thing to be in the middle of. I was just a high school kid like everyone else with skinny legs.… Somehow, I backed into the chance to do this.” His humility and obvious warmth toward his family impressed 56-year-old Debbie Plante of Somersworth. “He’s a family man,” she said. “He seems so down to earth.”

Still, that accessibility may not be able to protect every chink in Romney’s general-election armor. He ran to the right of some opponents on immigration, even though Hispanic voters are expected to help swing the election. Democrats have drawn attention to an appearance in Iowa two weeks ago in which Romney pledged to veto the Dream Act, which would allow illegal-immigrant children to earn citizenship if they attend college or enter the military. Romney has fiercely criticized one of his opponents, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for backing a law that provides in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants. “Either Romney is counting on Latinos forgetting the nasty things he’s said, or he’s concluded that Latino voters aren’t going to matter much,” says Mario Lopez, president of the nonpartisan Hispanic Leadership Fund. “He’s done everything he can to drive Hispanic voters away.”

The Romney team argues that Obama is the one who has broken trust with Hispanic voters by failing to fix the economy and reform immigration laws. Romney began air-ing Spanish-language television advertisements in Florida the day after his victory in New Hampshire.

The ads feature Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami praising Romney’s policy—not on immigration, an issue on which they disagree with the former governor, but on the economy. It’s an ad the candidate could have aired six months ago or, assuming he’s the nominee, could still be airing six months from now. Either way, it’s the same campaign.

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