By Justin Sink - 04/24/12 09:00 AM EDT
Mitt Romney needs to pivot from the attack-dog role that helped him secure the GOP nomination and define himself in a positive way for voters — both personally and politically.
That advice is coming from some of his leading surrogates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) and Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.), who argue that after a bruising Republican primary, Romney needs to show voters some optimism.
But unlike the GOP primary, in which Romney held organizational and financial advantages, Romney enters the general election as an underdog.
“The odds are already against him with the president’s home-court advantage and bully pulpit,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Romney also badly trails Obama in terms of favorability. Some 56 percent of voters see the president in a positive light, versus 40 percent who perceive the president unfavorably, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week. Romney, meanwhile, is only rated favorably by 35 percent of the voters, while 47 percent say they have an unfavorable view of the presumptive Republican nominee.
Still, while the polls paint a troubling picture for Romney, there is room for growth — especially among the type of undecided swing voters who are least likely to have paid attention to the primary campaign.
“The good news for Romney is that fewer people have formed an opinion — he has more growth potential, but also more opportunity to fall off,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “The president is unlikely to move either way very much, because, again, we know who he is; people have very set opinions on what they think of him.”
In a Quinnipiac survey released last week, only 6 percent of voters said they didn’t have an opinion of Obama, versus 29 percent for Romney.
Strategists and allies say that after the tough primary, Romney must paint an optimistic vision for how he would improve the lives of the American people.
“I think Mitt needs to stay above the fray a bit, and to offer a hopeful message that can lift people’s spirits up,” Bush, whose endorsement helped Romney solidify his grasp on the nomination, told Newsmax last week.
“After the end of this four or five months of really negative campaigning, I think people are going to be motivated by a more positive message.”
And Daniels told The Indianapolis Star last week: “You have to campaign to govern, not just to win.” Daniels, considered a possible VP candidate, warned that “slash-and-burn” campaigning seldom yield great accomplishments.
Already, there are signs the Romney campaign is looking to soften the image of its candidate. In a profile earlier this month in The Washington Post, friends and aides described Romney as being too private about some of his most appealing and altruistic qualities.
They argue the former Massachusetts governor portrayed in the media and by political rivals is incongruous with the man they know. They point to how, in 2003, Romney and his sons helped rescue a family on a lake in New Hampshire and how, in 1996, he shut down his firm Bain Capital to search for a partner’s missing daughter in New York City.
But Romney will need to find a signature issue that elevates his campaign from an “Anybody but Obama” vehicle to the type of movement that can excite and motivate donors and voters.
“People know there are challenges, but they don’t know why he’s the best person to fix it,” O’Connell said.
The selection of a vice presidential candidate should also help Romney, who will be freer to present a positive message once he can dispatch his running mate to go on the attack.
Still, Republicans worry that if Romney doesn’t take the opportunity now to build up his perception with voters, he’ll ultimately fall short against Obama’s formidable charisma and campaign operation.
“Spend the precious time and dollars explaining what’s at stake and a constructive program to make life better,” said Daniels. “And as I say, look at everything through the lens of folks who have yet to achieve. Romney doesn’t talk that way.”