Thomas Fitzgerald: Bumps aside, marching on

Mitt Romney campaigning in Metairie, La. Some say he has sharpened his message. STEVEN SENNE / Associated Press
Mitt Romney campaigning in Metairie, La. Some say he has sharpened his message. STEVEN SENNE / Associated Press (Mitt Romney)

Romney still has his doubters, but there's no doubting his delegate count.

Posted: March 25, 2012

Mitt Romney's gaffes are cable candy, he lacks appeal to the conservative and religious base of the Republican Party, and he has suffered embarrassing primary losses.

Yet he has been harvesting delegates like a combine moving through wheat and seems a lock to claim the GOP presidential nomination. Romney's campaign has done what it's had to do, when it had to do it, with tactical brilliance: voter-targeting science, robocalls, powerful attack TV ads that diminish rivals.

But some GOP strategists say Romney needs to do more to flesh out a compelling vision of why he should be president, beyond economic experience. They say he has not completely answered the Roger Mudd Question.

"Why do you want to be president?" the CBS newsman asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in November 1979, when he was about to challenge President Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries.

"Well, I'm, ahh, were I to make the announcement - to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country, that it is - there's more natural resources than any nation in the world, there's the greatest education in the world, the greatest technology of any nation in the world," Kennedy began, before adding banalities about America needing to move forward.

It was a little over two minutes of hemming and hawing that was seared into the minds of political professionals and journalists.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and, before that, an investment banker, has struggled with the vision part of the candidate's job. On the stump he has mostly talked about President Obama's failings, how much he loves the nation, and vacation trips with his parents; he will sometimes sing "America the Beautiful."

It seemed to many GOP strategists and pollsters that Romney was relying on his resumé and superior campaign organization and the sense he was "inevitable." Then he ran into stiff competition from a series of conservative challengers, most recently former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Romney came from behind to win Michigan and Ohio after attacking the surging Santorum on TV, then lost in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries, dominated by conservative evangelical voters.

His campaign was forced to scratch and claw for delegates in fights over congressional districts and in U.S. territories. Team Romney went through a period in which it focused on discussing numbers, delegate math, and the rules of the GOP nominating contest.

"Last night I got more delegates than anyone else," Romney told Fox News on March 14, accurately, in the wake of his third-place vote finishes in Alabama and Mississippi. "This is a process of becoming the nominee, and I am pursuing that in an intelligent way."

GOP consultant Bruce Haynes said at the time: "Many folks can't tell you the rationale for the Romney candidacy in a cogent way. He needs to focus on winning the nomination instead of making the other candidates lose it."

Since then, Romney has gotten much sharper, Haynes and others say. He and his staff have stopped talking so much about the process, and he has returned to the economy as the main issue, with loftier rhetoric.

"The history of the world has shown that economic freedom is the only force that has consistently lifted people out of poverty," Romney said after a commanding win in the Illinois primary last week. ". . .But over the last three years, this administration has been engaged in an all-out assault on our freedom."

His goal, Romney said, is to "see an America where the values we pass on to our children are greater than the debts we leave them."

But senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom started a distracting firestorm when he told CNN the campaign was "almost like an Etch A Sketch," able to be reset for the general election. The comment fed suspicions in some quarters that Romney had no core beliefs or vision.

Veteran GOP media consultant Chris Mottola argued that was unfair, that the campaign had faced a difficult situation with new rules that allow supporters to spend unlimited money, as well as a longer primary calendar: "Nobody's ever had to overcome the obstacles Mitt Romney has had to win the nomination."

Santorum, whose distinguishing political characteristic is a fiery sense of vision, was embracing process-talk himself. His staff distributed memos purporting to show he would pick up support at the county, district, and state conventions that actually select delegates in many states.

In Gettysburg last week, Santorum pointed to the "FREEDOM" banner above the stage.

"I was pleased to hear before I came out that Gov. Romney is now adopting that theme as his speech tonight," he said, in a scathing tone. "I am glad we are moving the debate here in the Republican Party."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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