GOP hopes a better Mitt Romney emerges after Super Tuesday

GOP hopes a better Mitt Romney emerges after Super Tuesday

Mitt Romney needs to focus on economic issues and repair his image with independents if he wants to do more than just limp out of Super Tuesday, according to some of the nation’s foremost Republican strategists.

Romney’s momentum was largely restored by his crucial Michigan victory last week. He is expected to win several of the 10 states being contested Tuesday, the busiest primary day of the year.

Yet doubts about his candidacy persist because of his repeated gaffes and missteps — and because of how difficult it has proven for him to dispatch a field of opponents widely viewed as weak.


The corporate turnaround specialist was once seen as a natural to take on President Obama, given the nation’s economic travails. But Romney’s standing has fallen sharply in recent months as he has lost altitude with unaligned voters and continued to elicit staunch dissatisfaction from many conservatives.

Republicans hope the perennial front-runner in their race can succeed in the fall, but their discomfort is plain.

Romney, they fear, just might not be a very good candidate.

“In a different environment,” veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins said, “he wouldn’t be a viable candidate at all.”

The Super Tuesday contests offer Romney the opportunity to bring the primary process to a conclusion, potentially delivering a coup de grace to Rick Santorum and the fading Newt Gingrich.

But to defeat Obama, Romney needs to take more care with his tongue — especially because Democrats in general and Team Obama in particular have already sought to paint him as a stuffed shirt who lacks empathy with working-class voters. 

They have been abetted, in a sense, by the attacks against Romney from his Republican rivals. 

Appearing on “Face the Nation” Sunday, Gingrich contended that there was a “kind of fundamental dishonesty that has just continued to come back and bite the Romney campaign. Every time they ought to close the deal, the American people stop and say ‘Wait a second, there is something fundamentally false about his premise.’”

Romney himself acknowledged his errors last week.

“The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I’m trying to do better and work harder and make sure that we get our message across,” he told reporters.

Recent gaffes included an offhand remark that his wife Ann drives “a couple of Cadillacs, actually.” While attending the Daytona 500, he acknowledged that he did not follow NASCAR “as closely as some of the most ardent fans” before adding, “I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.”

“I think he is a wooden figure,” Princeton politics Professor Fred Greenstein said. “He’s got a propensity for gaffes — spontaneous remarks that paint him, correctly, as an extremely affluent and privileged person.”

Asked what Romney should do about this, GOP strategists come back with a firm, simple answer: Stop it.

“He needs to quit thinking aloud and throwing these asides out,” Rollins said. “He’s not as comfortable around people as some people are. There’s a little bit of nervousness there. He’s not comfortable in a NASCAR environment, and if you’re not comfortable, you shouldn’t go.”

D.C.-based GOP strategist Trey Hardin, who is not aligned with any 2012 presidential candidate, put it this way:

“Is [Romney] the type of guy who it might be fun to have a beer with? Probably not. He says some dorky things at times.”

Mark McKinnon, a Texas-based GOP strategist and one-time adviser to President George W. Bush, expressed particular concern about the damage inflicted upon Romney with independent voters.

In a hypothetical match-up with Obama, Romney led among independents by 8 points in a CBS/New York Times poll in mid-January. A month later, the same poll found the situation had been reversed, giving Obama a 9-point edge.

“Romney needs to find a way to repair his image with independents. And he can’t wait,” McKinnon said. “Team Obama has already been branding Romney, which is unusual. But they gambled right and started laying bruises on Romney early, which has helped weaken him with key voter blocs.”

Romney is virtually assured of victory in at least three of the states that vote Tuesday. A win in Massachusetts, where Romney lives and served as governor, is all but guaranteed.

The same is true of Virginia, where he and Ron Paul are the only candidates on the ballot. Vermont’s demographic and ideological similarities to Massachusetts should see Romney safely home.

A fourth state, Idaho, is also promising for Romney, in part because of its sizable population of Mormons.

But the most intense focus will be on Ohio, where Romney and Santorum are locked in close combat. Santorum had been leading in polls there recently, but a number of surveys taken in the wake of the Michigan result showed Romney closing fast.

A victory in Ohio would be vital not just because of the large number of delegates — 66 — that are at stake there, but also because it would dampen one of the more-persistent negative storylines about Romney: that he struggles to win the support of less affluent Republican voters.

His Michigan win has already helped him in this regard. But it did not entirely obscure some less-auspicious evidence. 

Exit polls showed Romney lost every income bracket below those earning $100,000 per year. Santorum beat him by 5 percentage points among those with incomes less than $50,000 and by 3 percentage points among those with an income between $50,000 and $100,000. 

Several strategists who spoke to The Hill suggested that Romney’s route to victory, in Ohio and nationwide, was emphasizing economic issues over social ones. The latter, they argue, are neither a strength for Romney nor a top priority even for most Republican voters.

Exit polls bear this out, at least in part: In Michigan, 55 percent of GOP primary voters named the economy as the most important issue, and Romney won them 47 percent to 30 percent over Santorum.

Rollins suggested Romney look outside his immediate campaign team for help. He said he would advise Romney to seek the counsel of GOP politicians such as former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — people, he said, who do not have Romney’s “tin ear” and who might be more candid than campaign staffers when it comes to pointing out flaws.

“Some people are naturals,” Rollins said. “They know how to do these things. He doesn’t.”