The Front Runner Makes It Official: Romney Targets Obama, Acts like Himself

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REUTERS / Brian Snyder

When Newt Gingrich announced his presidential campaign, he presented himself on YouTube as the optimistic care bear of conservatism, bathed in soft focus and speaking with a forced smile over synthesized strings. The effect was to distance candidate Gingrich from his reputation as a surly, divisive and quixotic lawmaker in the 1990s. When Tim Pawlenty took the plunge a few weeks later, he posed in Iowa as a hard-nosed truth teller, unwilling to bend in the face of the great ideological challenges of the day. His message was equally clear: when he said, “I’m going to tell you the truth,” he seemed to mean, “I won’t pander like Mitt Romney.”

On Thursday, it was Romney’s turn, at a farm in New Hampshire. And his campaign announcement carried a message just as resounding.

He wasn’t running against himself, like Gingrich, or against a primary challenger, like Pawlenty. Romney’s sights were set on the general election and the sitting President of the United States. “We have more than slogans and promises to judge him,” Romney said. “Barack Obama has failed America.”

This is the message of a man who views himself as a front runner and who is determined to keep that position for the next eight months. It is also a message that draws directly from Romney’s advantages: significant fundraising prowess, buttressed by major personal wealth, big-time name identification among the electorate and a record as a private-sector whiz kid who specialized in turning around failing or struggling organizations. “Turning around a crisis takes experience and bold action,” Romney said. “For millions of Americans, the economy is in crisis today. Unless we change course, it will be in crisis for all of us tomorrow.”

Like most Romney speeches, this one was written far better than it was delivered. But it was striking nonetheless for its focus on the issues that are almost certain to decide the next election: jobs and economic growth. In 2008, Romney structured a campaign around the three legs of the conservative-coalition stool: social and foreign policy and economic conservatism. This time, social issues are all but absent, and foreign policy is brought up largely as a setup for one-liners at Obama’s expense. The main message is economic: in a narrow sense, it’s about jobs, and more broadly, it’s about restoring confidence in the American experiment. “The confidence in a better America defines us,” Romney said.

Strategists for the Obama campaign are well aware of the appeal of this message, and they plan to make it a central plank of the President’s re-election strategy. “I don’t discount Romney,” says one Obama adviser, who still expressed confidence that Romney would be defeated in a general election. “There is something about the story of a turnaround artist, the guy who understands the economy and so on, that in an environment like this has potential power.”

All year, the Romney strategy has been to keep an eye on this ball. His aides long ago decided that Romney’s great failure in 2008 was his effort to be an all-of-the-above candidate, striving to appeal to all voters at the same time, feeding the impression that he was a pandering phony. The painful experience also taught Romney’s team the importance of not getting distracted by the daily scrums of a presidential campaign.

As it stands, the Republican primary campaign is likely to be decided on a simple question: What passable conservative is best able to beat Barack Obama in 2012? If this is the question, Romney’s advisers feel they can mostly bypass the painful debates over his shifting positions in 2008. Some outside observers agree. “If it looks like Romney is more viable,” explains Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who does not endorse candidates, “a lot of [Evangelicals] are going to vote for the Mormon.”

The other advantage of Romney’s new strategy is that it fits him better personally. Anyone who spent time with him in 2008 quickly realized that there was a real guy lurking behind the overly broad smile and perfect hair of Mitt Romney the candidate. A lot of what turned people off as phoniness was little more than overcompensation by someone not entirely comfortable with the art of interpersonal seduction. After following Romney around Florida shortly before he bowed out of the race, I wrote a dispatch that summed up this view:

Romney is, at heart, the geeky consultant he spent his life becoming. He is a salesman and a number cruncher, a goofball and a social stiff. He literally will talk about humor as something that can be decided upon in the boardroom. “We had a team of people, several teams who came together and said, ‘What do we want to have as part of our corporate culture, our enterprise culture?’ ” he explained on Saturday about his effort to save the Salt Lake City Olympics. “And one of the rules we had was, we were going to have fun. And the first rule was, every meeting had to begin with a joke. And it took some work to find jokes.”

That’s Mitt Romney. The guy who has to work to find jokes, in the same way he works to decide if an investment is worth the risk. He’s the guy who uses phrases like enterprise culture as if they meant something. And the thing is, the real Mitt Romney is actually a likable guy, and maybe even an electable one in a nation nervous about the possibility of a looming recession. But for that to happen, Romney is going to have to show a degree of courage he has mostly lacked this campaign cycle. He is going to have to stop worrying about who he should be, and just continue to be the guy he really is.

It is too early to tell if Romney has found the sort of self-confidence that he hinted at in the closing days of the Florida primary. To this day, Romney can’t help but let his rhetoric get out ahead of his positions. He will talk about the Obama stimulus and automaker bailouts as great Big Government failures, even though he supported similar government interventions at the time. But the new campaign strategy will almost certainly help by keeping Romney in his wheelhouse. And the announcement speech on Thursday clearly signals that he is trying a new path.