GOP presidential hopefuls seek to distance themselves from Romney

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other likely 2016 GOP presidential candidates are sounding populist themes in battleground states, trying to distance themselves from Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.

Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have been reaching out to working-class voters as they visit states like Iowa and New Hampshire, in the belief that Romney's bid fell short because he did not try hard enough to win over that segment of the voting public.

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Santorum declared at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, that it’s time for the party to abandon the dictum that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

“We need to reject this idea that well if we build the economy all boats will rise and everybody will be fine,” he declared. “Most people I know have holes in their boats. And when that tide rises sometimes they don’t rise; sometimes they sink.”

Former President John F. Kennedy popularized the rising tide proverb, but it has since been warmly embraced by Republicans. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh ripped President Obama last month for breaking with Kennedy:

“President Obama has just said that's a bunch of conservatism that doesn't work.  And this whole notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, all that is is a "you're-on-your-own" economy, and we don't need a "you're-on-your-own" economy. We need a "we're-in-this-together" approach.  We need socialism, he says,” Limbaugh told his listeners. 

Santorum, however, said Republicans at the 2012 presidential nominating convention in Tampa focused too much on business owners and not enough on workers.

“Not one time did we see someone from the factory floor walk out there and talk about working for the man or women who built that business and how that helped them and their families,” he said of last year’s convention speakers. “We need to be able to communicate to the folks who hold the jobs and tell them and put a platform together that focuses on them.”

Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars painting Romney as an economic elitist. Some Republicans now think he helped the opposition’s messaging operation by failing to reach out to lower-income voters. Romney played into Obama’s game plan with cringe-inducing gaffes such as claiming that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and think of themselves as victims.   

Cruz says Romney’s campaign message should have been more inclusive of people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

“Every policy we think about, we talk about, should focus like a laser on opportunity, on easing the means of assent up the economic ladder — on how it impacts the least well off among us,” he told conservative activists at the Family Leadership Summit. 

He said Romney could have improved upon the slogan he picked for the 2012 convention: “You built that.” Intended as a jibe at Obama’s claim that business owners succeed in large part because of community assistance, Cruz felt Romney’s message left out aspiring entrepreneurs.

“It was directed to those who already built their business, who had already succeeded. How much better would it have been if what we had said was, ‘You can build that?'” he said.

Paul also called on his party to be more inclusive during a recent trip to New Hampshire, a crucial primary state.

“We're going to win when we look like America. We need to be white; we need to be brown; we need to be black; we need to be with tattoos, without tattoos, with ponytails, without ponytails, with beards, without," Paul told the audience at a GOP dinner in May, according to the Concord Monitor.

"We need to be that party that can express it in a way that shows that we care about people,” he added in what appeared to be a subtle jab at Romney. “We need to care about people even if they are on government assistance."

Republican strategists are split over whether their party should adopt a more populist tone, which has traditionally been the strategy of Democrats.

“That’s a tone we definitely need to talk about as we move forward,” said Chip Saltsman, who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) 2008 presidential campaign.

Saltsman said Huckabee’s populist approach was a big reason he won the Iowa caucuses that year. 

“You saw Gov. Huckabee talk about that in 2007 when nobody was talking about it. He really tapped into something that I think the Republican Party had been missing for a long time, someone who was talking to the people instead of at the people,” he said.

But others say these candidates are too focused on running against the party establishment at the expense of bringing new ideas or policy proposals to the debate.

“It sort of cracks me up that a Republican would try to get left of President Kennedy on the issue of a rising tide lifting all boats,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster with North Star Opinion Research.

“It’s interesting to me to hear Cruz talk about how we have to reach out to minorities, whether its African-Americans or Hispanics, which is true, but then not to offer any solutions about what you would do with the immigration system,” he added.

But McHenry said the message is likely to play well among conservative activists in Iowa, who “are probably also the people who have that populist strain."

Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, noted Pat Buchanan, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996, performed well in New Hampshire by running on a populist anti-trade, anti-establishment platform.

“I think Cruz and Santorum, especially Cruz, are the best examples of this to date,” he said. “What they’re really getting at is the idea that Mitt Romney’s campaign was trying to corral the small-business vote, which is probably already pretty well corralled for the GOP, but he offered nothing to any other group in America.”

Trende has noted in published analysis that Romney was hurt by a drop in the white vote between 2008 and 2012. He estimated that many of those voters who failed to turn out to the polls were of working-class and low-income backgrounds.

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign, said former President George W. Bush was the last GOP nominee who effectively reached out to blue collar workers. His campaign message of “compassionate conservatism” helped him beat former Vice President Al Gore, who centered his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles around a populist message.

“Since 2005, the biggest problem in the Republican Party with respect to connecting with voters has been language,” he said.

He said Republican lawmakers and politicians are learning “if they watch their language and use a populist tone, they do a heck of a lot better job, and the reason is most people don’t know the mechanics of policy.”