At first glance, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney ticks all the right boxes, but as a tense Super Tuesday fight looms his assets are also proving to be liabilities, writes Claire Prentice
IF ONE man seems to tick all the boxes for successful Republican Presidential candidates it is Mitt Romney. Handsome, wealthy and religious, he has a photogenic brood of five sons and an attractive wife. From his chiselled jaw to his athletic frame and mane of dark hair, Romney looks like he has been chosen by Central Casting to play the role of President of the United States.
With just two days to go until Super Tuesday, when ten states cast their votes, Romney is a fragile frontrunner. It is a measure of how unusual this year’s battle for the Republican nomination has become that during this campaign almost all of Romney’s assets have turned out to be liabilities.
His wealth, estimated at anywhere between $180 million and $250m counted against him when early in the campaign he didn’t seem to know exactly how much he was worth. In America’s current economic malaise that is a problem few of his countrymen share.
His faith, normally an asset in the Republican race, is also an issue. Romney, along with around five and half million of his fellow Americans is a Mormon, a church viewed by fundamentalist Christians as a cult. Though the clean-cut Romneys are more Osmond family than polygamous compound dwellers, the suspicion lingers amongst the conservative Right.
And even his family has caused him some difficulties, when in a recent comment he revealed that his wife drove two Cadillacs. Unsurprisingly Romney’s opponents have portrayed him as a privileged plutocrat, out of touch with ordinary Americans. This perception is entirely of Romney’s own making, following a string of gaffes such as his statement that “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
“He needs to work on this mild case of political Tourette’s syndrome he’s got which is portraying him as wealthy and out of touch,” said lobbyist Ed Rogers, a White House adviser in the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations.
Washington Republicans voted yesterday. But the next big battleground in the GOP race for the nomination is Super Tuesday, and all eyes will particularly be on Ohio. Romney is preparing for a tough fight in the Buckeye State, where he must win over blue collar workers and evangelicals, two groups he has struggled to connect with. Romney’s biggest threat, Rick Santorum, has the social conservative credentials to do well in Ohio where polls show him slightly ahead of Romney.
A win in Ohio could effectively clinch the presidential nomination for Romney. A defeat there could lead to a long and brutal primary battle stretching well into the spring or early summer.
If Romney faces a challenge in the Midwest, then he faces a major battle in the South, with Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia all expected to be fought out between Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Idaho will be another competitive state. Idaho is about 25 per cent Mormon so Romney should do well but Santorum, Ron Paul and Gingrich have all been eyeing the state.
“It’s premature to say Romney is going to be the nominee,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. “I don’t think Super Tuesday is going to be a great day for him. This battle will go right to the bitter end and Republican political insiders will have to get behind him and move heaven and earth because there is no other option.”
The lack of strong alternatives in the Republican field has been a major headache for the party. Though Santorum is widely seen as Romney’s only real challenger, so far Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich have refused to drop out of the race.
Santorum is popular with social conservatives and evangelicals but he is seen as an economic lightweight and has turned off many women voters with his attacks on contraception, pre-natal testing, working mothers and women in the military. His campaign is being run on a relative shoe-string compared to Romney’s slick multi-million dollar campaigning machine.
Gingrich has conceded that to stay in the race he must win his home state of Georgia on Tuesday. Texas congressman Ron Paul is focusing on states that will hold caucuses like North Dakota and Idaho, where he believes he has the most likely chance of winning delegates.
As frontrunner, Romney’s biggest problem is that he fails to ignite the passions of the Republican base and elicits suspicion that he is not a true conservative. His relatively liberal record as governor of solidly Democratic Massachusetts, is a major turn off for many in his party. It has also given Obama a stick to beat him with in the forthcoming election if the two men end up going head to head, as most predict.
Under Romney’s governorship, Massachusetts ran a state-wide healthcare system. Last week Santorum said he has never supported a government-run healthcare system, while he described a state law passed during Romney’s administration in Massachusetts as “the model for Obamacare.”
With the Republican grass roots loathing Obama’s health reforms, many in the party question the wisdom of selecting a man who would be vulnerable to Democrat attacks, or perhaps more damagingly, who could be “praised” for inspiring their plan.
Romney’s struggle to pull off a convincing win in Michigan last week displayed the frontrunner’s weakness. Michigan should have been an easy win for a man who was born and brought up in the state and where his father was a much-loved governor. In fact Romney only scraped it, amid falling poll ratings.
Advisers confess that behind the scenes they are working hard to keep Romney, a private equity tycoon, on message. “That has been a big problem,” confessed one insider.
“He needs to get back to a results-focused message and make the case that, as a successful businessman, he is the right person to fix the economy,” said Tucker Eskew, a Republican strategist who has not declared support for any of the candidates.
At a recent campaign stop in Ohio, Romney drew cheers when he accused China of “taking away our jobs” and putting “American businesses out of business” by keeping its currency artificially low. He criticised Santorum for being an “economic lightweight.” But even this strategy is fraught with danger: with the economy improving in recent weeks, President Obama has seen a slight increase in his poll ratings.
On the stump Romney often struggles to connect with ordinary voters. At a recent town hall event, he was faced with a man who described the strain paying for healthcare for his daughter who had Down’s syndrome was putting on his family. It was a moment most politicians would have seized on and milked to show their empathy. But Romney, without so much as acknowledging the man’s personal circumstances, responded with a dispassionate rundown of his healthcare talking points.
If he does win the nomination, supporters and critics agree that he will have to work hard to overcome public perceptions of him as dull, stiff and mechanical.
“Romney needs to make a more personal connection with voters and convince them that he can be a strong, principled and effective leader,” says Rogers.
If Romney does fail to secure the nomination, or secures the nomination and fails to win the presidency, it will be a rare setback for a man who has made a habit of winning. Born to George and Leonore Romney in 1947, Mitt’s progress has been surefooted and determined, from the Mormon Brigham Young University to Harvard where he graduated with a joint MBA and law degree, through management consultancy, into private equity investment and then into politics. Along the way he has earned a reputation as a formidable opponent, unafraid to hit back hard at political adversaries.
In a rare defeat, he ran Democrat warhorse Ted Kennedy close in the 1994 Senatorial race in Massachusetts. His campaign ads showed grainy black and white footage of Kennedy easing himself into a park bench. The message was clear. Kennedy, who was then 62 (younger than Romney is now) was old and out of touch. Angry advisers to Kennedy called the campaign “video sleaze”.
This time around, Romney has shown that he can also dish it out to Republican rivals. Romney aides have been behind a whispering campaign to portray Gingrich as narcissistic and erratic. In campaign ads, Romney has portrayed Santorum as an establishment figure who “went to Washington and ... never came back.” Such attacks show a glint of steel in the character of a man advisers describe as “funny and self deprecating” off stage. Much of that off-stage time is spent with his family. Wife Ann, whose father was a Welsh emigre to the US, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. A homemaker and full-time political wife, she was ridiculed in the 1994 senatorial race for telling reporters that she and Mitt had never had a serious argument during their marriage, but is credited now with providing a human face to his campaign. Together for 42 years, they are described by aides as “each other’s most trusted adviser.”
Supporters say the bruising battle for the nomination has made Romney stronger, and tightened his campaign’s organisation, better preparing him to do battle for the presidency.
Others within the Republican Party fear his candidacy will be weakened by the relentless attacks on his record and character, arming his opponents ahead of November’s election.
On top of this, Romney’s lurch to the Right in a bid to excite the Republican base could alienate independent voters who are crucial to a general election victory.
One scenario being floated by Republican strategists is that if Romney does not emerge the outright winner, party grandees, tiring of the scrappy battle for the nomination, will call time on it, and strike a deal to nominate Romney ahead of the Republican convention. Shaun Bowler, professor of political science at the University of California, sees the failure of the Republican Party to get behind any one candidate as indicative of a wider malaise within the party.
He says: “That lack of enthusiasm reflects the split inside the GOP, between social and economic conservatives. A split base and a lack of enthusiasm don’t bode well for November’s presidential election, whoever is the GOP nominee.”
Key dates: The road to the White House
6 Mar Super Tuesday Primaries in Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. Caucuses in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming.
10 Mar Kansas and US Virgin Islands caucuses.
11 Mar Hawaii caucuses.
13 Mar Alabama and Mississippi primaries.
20 Mar Illinois primary.
24 Mar Louisiana primary.
3 Apr Washington DC, Maryland and Wisconsin primaries.
24 Apr Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island primaries.
8 May Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia primaries.
15 May Nebraska and Oregon primaries.
22 May Arkansas and Kentucky primaries.
5 Jun California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota primaries.
26 Jun Utah primary.
27 Aug Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
3 Sept Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
3 Oct Presidential debate in Denver, Colorado.
11 Oct Vice-Presidential debate in Danville, Kentucky.
16 Oct Presidential debate in Hempstead, New York.
22 Oct Presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida.
6 Nov General election for the next President of the United States.