Doubts creep in as an awkward Mitt Romney tries not to lose the GOP nod

What’s wrong with Mitt Romney?

In the early stages of this cycle’s Republican nominating process, the former Massachusetts governor seemed confident and sure-footed. Now he seems awkward and defensive.

The strength of his debate performances in the summer and fall allowed him to swat aside challengers including Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry.

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Banishing memories of his halting 2008 campaign-trail persona, Romney propelled himself into a commanding position, victory almost within his grasp.

In recent weeks, however, the socially uncomfortable Romney from 2008 has been on display, and parodied on “Saturday Night Live” for watching football with his “five human sons.”

Romney seems to have gone into a defensive crouch, leaving many Republicans feeling like football fans who watch their team move to a ‘prevent defense’ to protect a fourth-quarter lead and dread losing all of it. Their nerves are being jangled even as they acknowledge that outright disaster has so far been averted.

“For some reason, he has slipped into this ‘I’m trying not to lose’ mode — and that’s when you do lose,” said Republican strategist Keith Appell, who is not aligned with any of this year’s presidential candidates.

It’s important not to overstate the perils Romney faces. He is still by far the best-funded candidate in the race. He has a state-by-state infrastructure that is the envy of his rivals. Even if he were to lose Saturday's South Carolina primary, he would  likely remain the overall favorite to clinch the nomination.

But the procession of errors has been striking nonetheless — and it has raised concerns among many in the GOP about his vulnerabilities in a general election contest with President Obama.

Most of Romney’s awkwardness has revolved around questions about his wealth. During a heated exchange during a debate last month, he ill-advisedly offered to bet Perry $10,000 that his own account of what he had written in one of his books was correct. Perry declined, saying he was “not in the betting business,” but the episode heightened perceptions that Romney is out of touch with most Americans.

The same pattern keeps cropping up. Earlier this week, he was asked about the effective tax rate he pays on his income, and managed to injure himself twice in the space of a few sentences. First, he acknowledged that his tax rate was “probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything.” He then added: “I get speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

The first claim was almost certainly true. Romney’s income is believed to come chiefly from long-term investments rather than earned income, and that would indeed make him liable for capital gains tax levied at a 15 percent rate. But it still places the multimillionaire in a more lightly taxed band than many voters — something which Newt Gingrich tried to take advantage of with his mocking proposal to introduce a “Mitt Romney 15 percent flat tax.”

Perhaps even worse was Romney’s “not very much” comment. His latest financial disclosure form, which covered the period from February 2010 to February 2011, revealed that he earned $374,327 for speeches. The sum is approximately seven times the median household income in the United States.

Those remarks had been preceded by a televised debate at which he gave a muddled response about whether he would release his tax returns.

Romney flubbed the tax-return question for a second time at a debate last Thursday, eliciting boos from the crowd when he said he would “maybe” follow the example of his late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who released 12 years of tax returns when running for the presidency in 1968.

Romney’s mangled syntax on these occasions seems symptomatic of a wider personal unease in discussing his finances. GOP consultants say he needs to get over that discomfort if he is to prove an effective candidate.

“The issue of finances seems to be personally uncomfortable for him to talk about,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant with long ties to the GOP’s Capitol Hill leadership, told The Hill. “It then becomes very obvious on camera that he doesn’t want to deal with this.”

A better approach, Bonjean argued, would be for the candidate to put his financial success on center stage, arguing that his personal trajectory equips him to bring the nation back to prosperity.

“This is a perfect time for him to turn this around, in the early stages of a primary process and before it can be used against him in the general election,” Bonjean said.

“He can make a strong point by embracing his economic status, ‘Yes, I’m successful, and here’s why I got to be that way. And now here’s what I can do to make America successful.’”

Romney has already sought to do this to some degree. Such efforts are, at the least, more likely to be effective than his uneasy attempts to show empathy with less well-off members of the electorate.

His comment in New Hampshire earlier this month that he had sometimes feared he “was going to get a pink slip” was widely ridiculed — including by Perry, who suggested that the only pink-slip-related concern Romney had was “whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out.”

The broader danger for Romney is that such missteps play into the characterization of him as not merely socially maladroit but inauthentic.

That millstone was placed around his neck to considerable effect by his rivals in 2008, most notably Mike Huckabee.

One Republican consultant who did not want to be identified said Romney still had time to change this perception of him. But, citing the Saturday Night Live sketch, he drew a parallel that would surely give Romney heartburn.

“Look at Sarah Palin,” the consultant said. “She came in so late in the process, she did not have time to define herself. Tina Fey defined her. And it really belittled her.”