Experts offer some pre-debate advice for Romney: 'Be yourself'

There is time for Mitt Romney to forge the personal connection with voters that propels successful candidates to the White House, according to Republican and Democratic commentators alike.

But it’s running out.

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These experts say that, policy prescriptions aside, the GOP nominee needs to display greater personal ease and consistency of tone than he has done so far.

This will be no easy task while under sustained fire from President Obama’s re-election team, and while grappling with a media narrative that now positions Romney as a clear underdog.

Republicans take heart, however, from national polls that show the contest remaining tight, and from the opportunity that the three upcoming presidential debates afford Romney.

The first debate takes place in Denver on Oct. 3. Conservatives insist that during all three clashes with Obama — and on the stump from now until Election Day — Romney needs to be embrace his identity as a successful businessman and offer calm clarity about what a Romney administration would do.

“He has to come across as a sincere, transparent, credible leader. But he shouldn’t reinvent himself. Another Romney reinvention plays right into the president’s hands,” said Steve Deace, an influential Iowa-based conservative radio host.

“If I were him, I would take the thing I am going to get attacked for and turn it around: ‘Yes, I am rich; yes, I am successful. I got that way by doing the exact opposite of what the president has been doing to the economy over these past four years.’”

Republicans and some neutral observers argue that Romney has been unfairly tarred as a callous plutocrat.

It would be much closer to the truth, they argue, to see him as a fundamentally decent man who struggles to overcome a natural reticence and self-consciousness.

Those unfortunate tendencies, they argue, are exacerbated by the electoral conundrum Romney faces. On the one hand, he must appeal to centrist voters. On the other, he must solidify a Republican base whose affection for him has never been ardent.

The upshot has been a crippling desire to please two constituencies at once, and a concomitant, constant fear of saying the wrong thing.

“Romney has had to run — and is still running — dual campaigns,” said Republican strategist Trey Hardin. “He is still running a campaign to energize the base after a tumultuous nomination battle, and his being considered the least conservative guy coming out of that. The primary campaign has not ended for him.”

Independent observers who pick up on this point see a path forward for Romney. But they caution that he needs to have a better grasp of how to calibrate his words.

Up until now, he has sometimes veered into a heated rhetoric that can turn off independents even as it raises concerns among committed conservatives that he is simply trying too hard.

“Romney appears to me to be overly strident when making points,” said Brad Phillips, a media trainer who has worked with corporate executives and other public figures.

Phillips instanced the former governor’s description of himself as “severely conservative” when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

“That is a good example of a response that is unnecessarily strident,” he said.

Romney has other issues to grapple with. Part of his wariness on the stump might stem from the searing memory of his father’s political downfall.

George Romney’s quest for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1968 was undone by a single gaffe. He said in a television interview that during a trip to Vietnam he had undergone “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.”

His son might have been talking about his father, as well as himself, when he told the New York Times in 2007, “You have to be very judicious in what you say...You have to be careful with your humor. You have to recognize that anytime you’re running for the presidency of the United States, you’re on.”

Yet, despite all this caution, Romney displayed a personal maladroitness during this year’s GOP primary contest that has persisted in the general election race.

During the primary, he offered a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and noted during a visit to the Daytona 500 that he had “some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”

Since clinching the nomination, he suffered a series of public relations embarrassments during his international trip in July and made the now-infamous remarks about 47 percent of Americans seeing themselves as “victims” that emerged in a covertly-filmed video last week.

“He doesn’t always understand the audience that he’s speaking to,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill. “His instinct is off.”

Finney’s political views are, obviously, at odds with those of Romney. But she also displayed some sympathy for him because, she argued, his campaign staff have failed to fully understand and minimize his weaknesses.

“He does have this awkwardness about him with people,” she said. “But when you are staffing someone like that you have to figure out their strengths. I think they tried, that day he gave the press conference with a whiteboard. They were trying to show him as the management consultant.”

But, Finney added, that mid-August event was not fully successful. The whiteboard never reappeared — yet another small detail that has left larger questions about inauthenticity hanging in the wind.

To some degree, Romney might be a poor fit for the modern political culture. It is now expected that presidential candidates will make the rounds of television talk shows, from The Tonight Show to The View, showcasing a lighter, hipper side to themselves.

Romney has gamely tried, but the suspicion lingers that he regards the process as both unpleasant and unseemly.

Still, some Republicans balk at the importance accorded to such rituals.

“Yeah, Obama’s younger, maybe he’s hipper and cooler, maybe he has a better sense of humor than Mitt Romney,” said Hardin dryly. “Maybe those things make Barack Obama better on Letterman. But that’s not what we’re grading these candidates on on Nov. 6.”

Across the spectrum, meanwhile, the experts were united on one point: from now until Election Day, Romney should simply be himself. He has little to lose by doing so.

“It is certainly later in the day than any candidate would hope,” said Phillips, the media consultant. “But being yourself is still the right thing to do. If you are dealing with all these questions about who you are anyway, why not run toward it?”