Republican field looks to Romney for ’16 help

At least six Republican candidates for the presidency are headed to Utah for a summit hosted by Mitt Romney that begins on Thursday.

If the old saying that you learn more in defeat than in victory is true, Romney has plenty to teach.

“I think there’s a lot you can learn from talking with a candidate who has run and won, but there’s also a lot you can learn from a candidate who has run and lost,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “There were clearly problems with the Romney campaign but if you get into [an event like this] you can really expand your knowledge base.”

{mosads}The site for the gathering is Park City, Utah. The Republican hopefuls scheduled to attend are Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. According to multiple media reports, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was invited but could not attend because of a trip to Europe.

One of the prime attractions of the event will be the ability to connect to Romney’s formidable donor network. For all his much-discussed missteps as a candidate, Romney remained financially competitive with President Obama in 2012.

The summit, officially hosted by the E2 Foundation, should allow plenty of time for bonding outside of formal settings. According to an Associated Press report, there is an open invite for attendees to begin their days hiking with Romney and his wife, Ann. Other planned activities, the news agency reported, include a flag football game with Rubio (who attended Tarkio College in Missouri on a football scholarship) and skeet shooting with Graham.

But beyond the conviviality, an obvious question will hang over proceedings. Are there useful lessons to be learned from Romney’s campaign?

As with any losing candidate, Romney’s mistakes were picked over at length in the aftermath of the election. They ranged from the infamous remark about “47 percent” of the population being dependent upon government handouts to the Election Day failure of a much-vaunted vote-tracking app named Orca.

Romney acknowledged some missteps after his defeat.

In March 2013, he told Fox News that the 47 percent remark amounted to “a very unfortunate statement” which “did real damage” to his campaign.

In the same interview, Romney lamented, “We weren’t effective in my message primarily to minority voters, to Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, other minorities.”

Exit polls bore that out. Romney won just 27 percent of the votes cast by Hispanics and only 6 percent from blacks in 2012. Major candidates this time around, including Rubio and Bush, have cast themselves as better-positioned to improve their party’s performance among Latinos.

Romney’s 2012 aides have defended the way the campaign was run. In a Washington Post op-ed within weeks of the Republican’s defeat, his chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, wrote that Romney “trounced” Obama in the debates.

Stevens also insisted Romney had “defended the free enterprise system and, more than any figure in recent history, drew attention to the moral case for free enterprise and conservative economics.”

But other Republicans disagree, asserting that the lack of a “big picture” strategy was one of Romney’s biggest weaknesses in 2012, a weakness that the party’s nominee needs to avoid in 2016.

“He made one major strategic error, which is that he made it a referendum on the opponent as opposed to what he was going to do,” said GOP consultant David Winston. Referring to the 2016 candidates, Winston added, “the question they need to be able to answer is, after they’ve been president for four years, what are the two major things that will have been accomplished for the American people?”

In Winston’s judgment, Romney’s failure to execute this element of presidential strategy left the door open for “anecdotal moments [to] define who he was” — a polite reference to “47 percent” as well as to clumsy verbal miscues and revelations of his wealth, such as the installation of an elevator for cars in a new house he was having built in California.

Despite all of these missteps, however, the Romney campaign, along with much of the conservative media, exuded confidence in eventual victory in 2012, right up until the moment when defeat was confirmed. That failure in foresight highlighted a need for more reliable polling and turnout data on the GOP side.

“Throughout the party, there are a lot of good efforts being made to improve the quality of data,” Winston said.

The Utah summit stretches from dinner on Thursday to lunch on Saturday and, amid the collegial atmosphere, candidates are almost certain to focus on Romney’s positives, irrespective of the lessons they might draw privately from his loss.

Meanwhile, one intriguing question remains unanswered: whether Romney would consider endorsing a candidate before the nomination is decided. 

Such an endorsement would not necessarily have a significant effect on the GOP grass roots, where skepticism of Romney has long been widespread. But the financial muscle Romney could exert would be very considerable.

“Right now, he hosts these things, and that’s interesting,” said Robinson. “But what I am really interested in is seeing whether he would be willing to put his back and shoulder behind a candidate.”

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