Romney’s aides would not release his travel plans or speculate on when he might announce his candidacy. His scheduled appearance at the Carroll County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner on March 5 will be his first announced visit to New Hampshire since October, a must-win state for Romney that hosts the nation’s first presidential primary.
“We got some good ideas” from Romney about health care reform. —Former White House aide David Axelrod
He and other Republican hopefuls are taking their time for good reasons. The constantly churning news cycle makes it much harder for front-runners to sustain momentum. Few can withstand the intense, unrelenting scrutiny of the Internet and cable television. What’s more, if the national Republican Party has its way, the 2012 primaries will be more of an endurance test than a sprint. In 2008, Iowa voted just three days into the year, Super Tuesday fell in February, and the nomination was settled by March 4.
For 2012, the RNC is nudging the four earliest voting states, including Iowa, toward February dates; states that award delegates proportionately toward March; and winner-take-all-states to April. States that violate the rules risk losing delegates and weakening their political clout.
“The longer he waits to start campaigning, the better,” said seasoned GOP fundraiser John Rood, who quietly squired Romney to meetings with South Florida donors last month. “Once it starts, it’s off to the races. So if you can run a 23-mile marathon instead of a 26-mile marathon, you do it.”
At this time four years ago, Romney had already completed the equivalent of an Ironman competition.
He had aired campaign ads in five early-voting states; defended his previous support for abortion rights; explained why he only recently joined the National Rifle Association; acknowledged he voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 presidential primary; confronted questions about illegal immigrants tending his lawn; and deflected arguments that his Mormonism wouldn’t alienate voters.
No wonder Romney titled his post-campaign book, No Apology. He spent much of the last campaign on his knees, begging social conservatives to accept him. He was a little too eager to please.
“A great quality that he has, that didn’t serve him well in the last campaign, was answering every question asked,” said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Washington lobbyist and an ardent Romney promoter. “He’s so smart that if you ask him about some nuance regarding health care, his brain will give you a thoughtful and possibly arcane answer. But you don’t have to do that. You can answer the question the way you want to.
“Ronald Reagan was great at that, the big-picture things,” added Kaufman, a top national Republican Party official in the 1980s. “Does anyone in this country think Ronald Reagan went down into the weeds of the issues? But the voters knew where he was going.”
Where, exactly, is Romney going? And is he comfortable walking around in his own skin?
Romney’s biggest problem in 2012 may not be health care, his religion, or his about-face on abortion—but authenticity.
In 2008, it wasn’t until onetime front-runner John McCain was down and nearly out that he sealed the deal with the GOP faithful. In contrast, the well-heeled Romney never broke through. A moderate Republican who thrived in the true-blue state of Massachusetts, Romney tried to remake himself as a conservative crusader and came off as a phony.
“No one questions his CEO abilities, but last time, he dove so far to the right trying to appeal to Christian conservatives that he became almost a caricature of himself,” said Iowa power broker Doug Gross, who led Romney’s campaign in that state in 2008 but hasn’t jumped aboard this time. “I think a number of people are skeptical of his ability to connect with the average voter.”
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Expectations were running high last month when Romney strode onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to the cheers of thousands of grassroots activists. It was a homecoming of sorts. If Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, would win “Most Popular” at the three-day event dominated by the Young Republican set, the well-coiffed Romney would be elected “Most Likely to Succeed.” He has topped CPAC’s straw poll three times and came in second this year, behind Paul. In February 2008, Romney chose the gathering to announce his withdrawal from the presidential race.
So on this Friday morning, Romney was at ease in his dark suit and rose-colored tie. The setting felt like a family affair, with his wife, Ann, introducing him this way: “I, for one, would like to see him lead the country as president of the United States.”
The line went over well in the packed ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, and Romney seemed to enjoy delivering his 17-minute speech. His timing was good; the audience clapped and chuckled in all the right spots.