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It isn't the chair or the ho-hum convention. Or the leaked video. Or Stuart Stevens. Or the improving economy. Or media b...
It isn't the chair or the ho-hum convention. Or the leaked video. Or Stuart Stevens. Or the improving economy. Or media bias. Or distorted polls. Or the message. Or Mormonism.
With Republicans everywhere wondering what has happened to the Mitt Romney campaign, people who know the candidate personally and professionally offer a simple explanation: It's the candidate himself.
Slowly and reluctantly, Republicans who love and work for Romney are concluding that for all his gifts as a leader, businessman and role model, he's just not a good political candidate in this era.
It kills his admirers to say it because they know him to be a far more generous and approachable man than people realize -- far from the caricature of him being awkward or distant -- and they feel certain he would be a very good president.
"Lousy candidate; highly qualified to be president," said a top Romney official. "The candidate suit fits him unnaturally. He is naturally an executive."
Romney himself has been a tough self-critic, telling "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley he has only himself to blame for missteps such as the secret video of him writing off 47 percent of Americans as ungovernable and out of reach to him politically. "[T]hat's not the campaign. That was me, right?" He made a similar remark when questions were raised about his campaign during the primaries, telling reporters: "The candidate sometimes makes some mistakes, and so I'm trying to do better and work harder."
That comment captures precisely why his closest confidants think he is a much better, bigger and more qualified man than often comes through on the trail. He treats his staff with respect, works hard on his weaknesses and does all of it because he possesses supreme confidence in his capacity to lead effectively.
"He's a great leader, but he's not a great politician," said a top member of Romney's organization. "As much as we complain about politicians, we like a good politician. He doesn't have the hand-on-the-shoulder thing. He's not quick-witted. He's an analytical, data-driven businessperson."
And that's the problem: His resume and his personal style seem ill-suited for the moment. He's a son of privilege who made hundreds of millions in private equity who is running in the first election since the 2008 economic meltdown -- a meltdown many blame on rich, Wall Street tycoons. And he's a socially stiff relic of a pre-ironic America, who struggles with improvisation and personal connections when the constant lens of the Web demands both.
Others have overcome innate political limitations on the way to the White House, including George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon. But for Romney to do so, his advisers know they have 40 days to make his fundamental strength -- a track record of high professional achievement -- erase concerns about his weaknesses as a political performer.
The weaknesses are bad enough. But it's worse for Romney: These flaws have left him struggling to defend himself against and rebut the relentless Obama campaign attack -- an attack designed to overcome the weaknesses in the incumbent's own record by rendering his opponent an unacceptable alternative.
For those in the political class, it's easy to get caught up in the latest tactics or economic indicators. But it's important to step back and consider the broad-brush images that voters who aren't following the race that closely are receiving courtesy of President Barack Obama's assault and Romney's own missteps.
This shows up every time pollsters press respondents on their concerns with Romney: "too rich for too long" or "too rich to care" come up repeatedly. This stuff isn't complicated, said one former Republican governor. "You can be rich and win Ohio, but you can't be rich and out of touch and win Ohio," said the governor.
Yet many of the folks who are despairing about Romney would actually love what he would do in office. Romney's metric-obsessed transition team is fleshing out a "200-day plan" (100 days wasn't enough time to pass a bunch of big bills) aimed at goosing the recovery and creating jobs by bringing corporate cash off the sidelines in the United States and attracting investment from abroad.
The weapons would include tax and regulatory policy and what one aide called a "very aggressive" series of executive orders, many already on the drawing board. Two of Romney's friends told POLITICO he would be eager to sign a bipartisan grand bargain in the first four months in office to calm markets and ease partisan tensions.
Because of Obama's own limitations, Republicans think Romney can overcome his -- though they are clear-eyed that things look bleak in the swing states today and much worse than they did three short weeks ago. "These states seem to all be moving in the same direction, and they're all states we need to win," said one of Washington's best-connected Republicans. "This could get away from us in a hurry."
POLITICO has talked to dozens of Republicans about this topic, many working on the campaign or raising massive amounts of money to support it. Few would talk on the record to discuss their candid appraisals of Romney.
"You have to know the room, and he doesn't know the room," said a top Republican in D.C. who has donated to Romney and wants him to win. "He's missing the normal-guy gene." That's self-evident: Just look at his painful references to athletics as "sport," or his call Tuesday for experienced referees to return to "the NFL playing fields." It's just not how factory workers in Toledo, Ohio, talk.
Or bet. In a preview of the presidential debates in the September issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows described why Romney's offer of a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry reinforced the worst caricature of him. "If Romney had said 'a million bucks,'" Fallows explained, "it would obviously have been hyperbolic; if he had said 'a hundred bucks,' it would have been a serious sum but comprehensible. Romney had instinctively found exactly the wrong number."
The latest he's-just-not-like-you moment came at a fundraiser in Washington on Thursday night. Romney was introduced by Bill Marriott, chairman of Marriott International, who tried to humanize his friend by telling a story of seeing Romney a few years ago while both were visiting their summer places on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Marriott told of taking his children and grandchildren to town on his boat for ice cream when he needed someone to help tie up the boat at the dock.
"They all jumped off and ran up the dock," Marriott said, according to the pool report. "And I realized there was nobody in the boat to help me dock the boat. ... I said, 'Who's going to grab the rope?' And I looked up and there was Mitt Romney. So he pulled me in, he tied up the boat for me. He rescued me -- just as he's going to rescue this great country."
Yet Romney's inherent challenge isn't merely that he can't be one of the guys. Voters seem hungry for raw competence. They will suffer a bad or tough bedside manner if they trust Romney as a capable leader who can make things better.
But Romney's friends say he lacks a gut instinct for how audiences will hear what he says. So much of his life has been spent talking to small slices of Americana -- CEOs, investors, fellow Mormons.
Take his remarks on the eve of the Summer Olympics. With people feeling good about the festivities ahead, he said it remained to be seen if London would get the security right. Romney, said one friend, was doing what he does best in private: making an honest appraisal of the risks and rewards of a situation. Sure, someone should have told Romney not to say it publicly. But a natural politician would have known it instinctively: Even if what you're saying is accurate and logical, don't trash your host as soon as you arrive.
A Republican backer and donor said: "The governor's thinking, 'I was just making an observation based on the facts.' But that's what a CEO would say. A politician has to make everybody happy."
Romney's comfort zone is problem solving and management.
Look at his rhetoric at fundraisers, rallies and economic roundtables: It's entirely about extolling the virtues of entrepreneurs and businesspeople. "One of the things that inspires me as I go across the country is seeing people who have built enterprises to lift themselves and, by the way, to employ others," Romney told many of his fellow corporate types at a fundraiser last weekend in San Diego.
Rare is the moment where Romney sings the praises of the working stiff, the cop on the beat, the waitress pulling a double shift. In military terms, he seems to be under the impression that the American electorate is filled with colonels, not privates and corporals.
Mike Huckabee famously suggested to Jay Leno that Romney reminds people of "the guy who laid you off." But talk to the same friends who cringe at some of these public moments and they describe a man who goes out of his way to help friends or neighbors or people in need brought to his attention by his church.
The campaign's official blog picked up a column highlighting the good deeds of Romney that he never discusses, including how he flew himself and Bain employees to New York in 1984 to lead the search for a missing girl -- a search that ultimately found her.
But it's Romney who has swatted away ideas he should offer a fuller view of his life.
Campaign officials, in the end, think likability is the least of his issues. The much bigger one is this sense that Romney is not comfortable in his skin, at least the conservative, no-compromise skin he had to put on to win the nomination.
His past willingness to change or shade his views for apparent political advantage resulted, over time, in one of his biggest political vulnerabilities. One close confidant said Romney sees the process like buying a company from a reluctant seller: Just do and say what you need to do to get the deal done, and then when it's done, do what you know actually needs to be done to make the company a success. It is hard to overestimate how much confidence Romney and many around him have that he can lead once he has the power to lead.
This do-and-say-what-it-takes tendency is reflected in his constantly changing message. His campaign was premised on a disciplined focus on jobs. But he has rarely stuck to it, to the dismay of advisers who have urged a relentless focus on exactly what he would do to create jobs, like Rick Santorum did during the primaries with his plan to revive U.S. factories.
And now, with the campaign taking on water, he hits the president on anything he can rip from the headlines: welfare last month, Libya at the start of this month, China this week and debt today. Romney is cautious by nature, which paid off in business. But in politics, rather than chart a bold course and stick with it, he winds up trimming and dodging in ways that, cumulatively, sink in with voters.
Newt Gingrich, in an interview with POLITICO, said that if Romney had stuck to big, clear ideas, the packaging wouldn't be as much of an issue. "Gov. Romney's challenge in the very first debate is to communicate decisively what he would do," Gingrich said.
"But I do think there's this permanent consultant tendency to be clever and to have gimmicks, and they don't work. ... So people spend lots of time on biography and lots of time trying to make somebody acceptable. What makes somebody acceptable is the belief that they will improve your life. ... I think they need a much more policy-oriented campaign. ... Let's make his policies necessary, and then he becomes acceptable, and not worry too much about him personally."
Romney refers frequently and unabashedly to his late father, George, a former Michigan governor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development who lost the Republican presidential nomination to Nixon in 1968. In interviews, Romney even throws in verbatim recitations of his dad's business precepts. The tributes are touching but make friends wonder how much of the son's quest is based on family honor or expectations, rather than the internal fire that animates most winning politicians.
Most of his advisers say this just isn't so. They contend he wants it for all the right reasons: He believes, based on his work at Bain, the Olympics and as governor, that he can honestly do the right thing for the right reasons if he just finds a way to navigate the necessary evils of politics and conservative litmus tests to get there.