Mitt Romney’s recurring dilemma

Mitt Romney knows what he needs to fix and ways to fix it. The problem is, he’s stuck.

The same damaging story lines keep coming back to haunt Romney - about his wealth, conservatism, Mormonism and flip-flops, among others.

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Unsolicited advice has been in no short supply for the Romney team, especially after twin losses in Alabama and Mississippi corroborated the GOP’s persistent doubts about Romney as the strongest conservative contender. Most have sounded a similar theme: Find a way to somehow push the reset button.

But there’s little the campaign hasn’t already tried.

“The attacks Romney has to endure are ones he can’t make go away,” said Dan Hazelwood, a GOP consultant who is unaffiliated in the race. “They’re right to realize they can’t flip a switch, give a speech and whatever challenge to his conservative credentials go away, because it doesn’t.”

Meanwhile, the prospect grows increasingly likely that Romney may fall short of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination without a contested convention.

The smart money is still on Romney to win the nomination, but every state where he loses or offers a disappointing showing — despite outspending and out-organizing all his rivals — leaves Romney looking weaker and less likely to unseat an incumbent president.

Romney has hovered in the 20’s and low 30’s in the national polls for most of the presidential campaign, rarely able to break through 40 percent. His successes in key swing states like Florida and Ohio have been mitigated by his failures in the South and his continued inability to win over key GOP demographics: Tea Party voters, evangelicals and blue-collar social conservatives.


Unable to seal the deal, Romney continues to be chased by doubts about his conservatism, faith and capacity for empathy. Those vulnerabilities have led some Republicans to urge the former Massachusetts governor to take bold steps to revamp his public image.

“Hitting them on the head and saying we’re past it is the way to do it,” said Craig Smith, a former speechwriter in the Ford and first Bush administrations.

“Put the best face on it, explain it the best you can, then move on with it,” he said.

In 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) traveled to the belly of southern white Protestantism — Houston, Texas — and defended himself against those who said his Catholicism should disqualify him as a presidential candidate. His speech was seen as a watershed moment for Kennedy, helping him allay some of the most damaging attacks against him. 

When race-baiting and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright were getting the best of candidate Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, he gave "the race speech." Voters still remember the moment when Obama called attention to the problem, addressed it decisively, then moved on  — and in doing so, took ownership over an issue that had owned him. 

But unlike Obama, who was still a fresh face to the American electorate when he ran for president a few years into his first Senate term, Romney has been in presidential campaign mode to varying degrees for the good part of a decade. Voters have developed a concrete image about who they believe Romney is.

That may be one reason he and his super-PAC have found it easier to move the numbers by lobbing attacks against his opponents, rather than by airing positive messages about Romney. 

“I don’t know that Romney can do much more to drive his narrative than what he’s already doing,” said Republican pollster Chris Perkins. “He’s got pros, he’s got cons. I’m not sure he can add a new pro to force his favorable ratings, and I don’t think opposition can add a new con to drive up his unfavorables.”

Another reason Romney may be reluctant to pursue the grand campaign shake-up many are advising is that when he’s tried it before, it hasn’t worked. In 2007, during Romney’s first presidential campaign, he attempted to defuse concerns about his Mormonism in a major speech where he said he would “serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest.” He tried a similar tack in May 2011 with an address on health care.

But both issues continue to pose challenges for Romney with much of the GOP electorate.

“I’m not sure that usually silences the critics or really addresses the issue,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a Romney supporter. “It legitimizes the issue, it puts a lot of pressure on, and I’m not sure you win a lot of hearts and minds.”

Dramatic public gestures have never been the domain of Romney and his highly disciplined team. That approach comes much more naturally for Newt Gingrich, who has mastered the art of commandeering the news cycle with attention-grabbing pronouncements (moon colonies come to mind).

For Romney, damage control comes in the form of minor adjustments to his trajectory calculated to increase in effect over time, the way a CEO returns an ailing company to profitability by adjusting his cost curve just a few points, knowing that the effects will eventually be amplified.

Part of that approach may be intrinsic to Romney’s natural style, but part of it may also stem from the awareness that his foes are all too ready and eager to sound the alarm whenever his rhetoric differs more than a modicum from anything he had said earlier.

Over the course of the campaign Romney has gradually ramped up his own rhetoric about conservative values, inching to the right on immigration and social issues as quickly as possible without triggering accusations of a flip-flop. But he was widely mocked by pundits when he slipped the phrase “severely conservative” into a description of his tenure as governor, during a February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Romney had a prime opportunity to decisively address another damaging issue when reporters in Michigan asked Romney in February whether comments about his wife’s multiple Cadillacs and his NASCAR team-owner pals had damaged him.

“Yes,” Romney said. “Next question.”

The Romney campaign did not respond to messages left seeking comment.

This post was updated at 4:50 p.m.