Yes, he can do better

Why gaffe-prone, wooden Romney could—with the help of some big backers and a sputtering economy—still unseat Obama

Richard Perry/The New York Times

When Mitt Romney took the stage at the fairgrounds in the Denver suburb of Golden, the midday heat was blistering. In the distance, the sunscorched Rockies had lost their usual snowcaps, and entire tracts of Colorado had gone up in the flames of the summer’s historic wildfires. It’s been a season of extreme heat in the United States, in both weather and politics.

But the man who could unseat President Barack Obama keeps stepping out from the furnace cool and collected. The former Massachusetts governor emerged from an ugly Republican primary contest this spring without the permanent political scars many observers had predicted. The Republican party has largely now embraced him under the unifying “Anyone But Obama” banner—and the conservatives who were wary of the once-moderate Romney are thrilled with his announcement this month of budget-axing, socially traditionalist Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. For months Romney has withstood a breathtaking pounding from the Obama campaign and its allies: they have attacked his character, his business record, his reluctance to release his tax returns, even his wife’s white-gloved “horse ballet” hobby. One Obama aide went so far as to suggest that he may have committed securities crimes in filling out regulatory forms that said he was still the CEO of Bain Capital years after he claimed he’d left. Meanwhile, the Democratic party’s majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said he had been told by an anonymous former Bain investor that Romney hadn’t paid income taxes in a decade, labelling him “the most secretive presidential candidate since Richard Nixon.” Romney denied it; and the Republican party called Reid “a dirty liar.” But the controversy kept alive questions about Romney’s finances.

As roughly 1,000 people gathered in Golden in early August to hear Romney speak, a small plane circled overhead trailing a banner with the words: “WELCOME HOME MITT—NOW RELEASE THOSE RETURNS.”

Romney has made the job easy for his critics. He has stubbornly refused to release more than two years of tax returns to settle niggling questions over how much tax he paid while in business, whether he was responsible for investments by Bain during the years its firms helped send American jobs overseas, or explain his financial accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. Then there was his foreign tour in late July; the gaffe-fest drowned out his critique of Obama’s foreign policy.

Nir Elias/Reuters

Romney arrived in London in July on a feel-good tour designed in part to remind voters of his success in turning around the troubled 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. But when he tactlessly questioned British preparedness on the eve of the opening ceremonies, British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a withering slap down, dryly noting that it’s harder to run the Games in London than “the middle of nowhere.” Romney’s next stop was Israel, where at a fundraiser with campaign donors he suggested that the Palestinian economy is weaker than Israel’s due to the power of “culture,” and even the “hand of providence”—omitting mention of the impact of decades of Israeli occupation. Outraged Palestinian officials charged anti-Arab racism. When he finally arrived in Poland, the national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, ran the headline: “Today Romney visits Poland. Will there be more gaffes?” Romney’s press aide promptly obliged by cursing out accompanying reporters, sending Poles to look up translations for “shove off” and “kiss my ass.”

But by the time Romney appeared in Colorado, fresh from the tumultuous foreign trip, he was relaxed and smiling, his blue-checked shirt crisp, not a hair out of place. It was as though the upheaval of the past few months didn’t matter. And that’s because it probably doesn’t. Judging by the numbers—poll results, fundraising disclosures, and sluggish economic indicators—Romney still has reason to be optimistic about November.

“The state of the economy makes it a dice game unless Romney literally shoots himself in the foot,” says Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government specializing in presidential politics at the University of Texas at Austin. “And number two, because of the super PACs, he is exorbitantly well-financed and they can flood the airwaves from morning to evening to keep his prospects afloat, both with the Republican base and with independent voters and wavering Democrats.”

It appears that most American voters had long ago made up their minds about Obama and they are deeply divided. Half the country supports him; the other half can’t wait to be rid of him. The two candidates have been neck-and-neck ever since Romney emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee. And despite all the attacks on Romney and all the negative press, the opinion polls barely budged for months. Some national polls began to show Obama inching up by a few points in August, before the Ryan announcement.

“The comparative polls have been steady and stable for a remarkably long time,” says Buchanan. “Many people say they can’t recall the last time a presidential race has been so flatline. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to change unless something dramatic upsets the apple cart, some problem or crisis, or a major downturn in the economy.”

Obama is vulnerable. His approval ratings are weak. According to the Gallup polling organization, presidents are generally reelected if their approval rating at the time of the election is at least 50 per cent. But Obama began the month of August with only 45 per cent of Americans approving of his job performance and 47 per cent disapproving, according to Gallup. (Historically, two presidents who polled below 50 per cent in their final approval rating before the election, George W. Bush and Harry Truman, won, while three, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, lost.) Not only that, but Americans, by a margin of two to one, tell pollsters the country is heading in the wrong direction. Polls don’t tell the whole story, but these numbers give Romney plenty to work with.

And then there’s the money. Obama had a fundraising edge earlier this year while Romney and his GOP rivals were fighting it out for the nomination. But once Romney emerged as the presumptive nominee, he and his allies started out-raising the President. In June, the Republican party raked in $106 million to the Democrats’ $71 million. In July, Republicans again raised more than Democrats, $101 million to $75 million.

Meanwhile, the outside political action groups, known as super PACs, have announced enormous spending plans. Pro-Romney groups— including some backed by Karl Rove, the Republican strategist once dubbed “Bush’s brain”—have announced plans to spend one billion dollars on the election—both on advertising and on-the-ground efforts to get Romney supporters to the polls. (To put that in perspective, in 2008, the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, raised $370 million, and Barack Obama raised $750 million.)

That outside spending, enabled by a series of court decisions that allowed the rise of big-dollar political action committees, is not equal. “It’s helping Romney a fair bit more than Barack Obama,” said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in U.S. elections. She notes that so far this election cycle, $40 million has been spent by outside groups on ads attacking Obama—compared with roughly $28 million spent attacking Romney, including during the primary race.

Part of the funding discrepancy may come from the fact that Obama was initially opposed to super PACs, but eventually gave in, worried he could be buried by conservative groups raising and spending unlimited amounts of money. In February, he said he’d send administration officials to fundraisers for the pro-Obama political action committee, Priorities USA. “Obama was a reluctant convert,” says Novak. “He came late to the game.” That’s one factor behind the money gap, he says. Then“you have a lot of very wealthy Republicans who seem very motivated. It’s always easier to raise money for change—as opposed to asking people to ante up for more of the same.”

And perhaps the biggest reason Romney could topple Obam is that for 42 consecutive months the U.S. unemployment rate has been above eight per cent. In July it inched up to 8.2 per cent. No American president in the postwar era has been re-elected with the rate above 7.2—where it stood at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term. And although Franklin Delano Roosevelt won re-election in both 1936 and 1940 with double-digit unemployment, joblessness was declining over both terms. By contrast, the unemployment rate has actually risen under Obama, from7.8percentatthebeginningofhisterm and many jobless Americans are no longer even counted in the statistics because they have given up searching for work.

Despite some positive numbers at the beginning of the year, economic indicators have been worsening. The U.S. economy slowed in the second quarter from a two per cent gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate, down to 1.5 per cent. Consumer confidence in the U.S. dropped in late July to the lowest level in two months due to mounting concern over the state of the economy, according to Bloomberg’s Consumer Comfort Index. The real estate market continues to struggle. More than half of America’s cities saw a rise in foreclosures in the first half of 2012 compared with the six months previous to it. Median household income is down $3,000 since Obama took office in the immediate wake of the financial crisis. And by year’s end the U.S. federal debt will reach roughly 70 percentofGDP,thehighestpercentagesince shortly after the Second World War.

The economy, no surprise, was top of mind to the crowd that greeted Romney in Golden. They are overwhelmingly white, but diverse in age, with markedly less of the sequined red, white and blue garb that generally marks Republican political events. There are lots of button-down shirts in the audience but just a single pair of stars-and-stripes cowboy boots. The crowds Romney attracts are a bit younger than the folks who flocked to Newt Gingrich, less Bible-oriented than the home-schooling mega-families who thronged Rick Santorum, and thick with small-business owners who admire Romney’s private sector success and embrace his small-government message.

Colorado is one of a handful of battleground states receiving the bulk of Obama’s and Romney’s attention this year. A traditionally Republican state with a growing Hispanic population, it voted Democratic in 2008: Obama won here by nine points after Democrats poured resources into the state and held their nominating convention in Denver. But Colorado’s most recent poll has Obama up by a single point. This state, like so many others, is up for grabs.

While money and economy may be in Romney’s favour, the calculus isn’t complete without geography, and that is in Obama’s favour. Under the U.S. system, candidates win the presidency by racking up 270 Electoral College votes assigned on a state-by-state basis. Obama starts with a slight advantage over Romney because the already solidly Democratic states account for a few dozen more electoral votes than do the solidly Republican states on which Romney can depend. This means Obama can afford to lose more swing states than Romney and still capture the White House. And demographic shifts also skew in Obama’s favour, thanks in part to growing Latino populations—who tend to vote Democrat—in Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and even North Carolina and Virginia. At the end of the day, says Buchanan, “Obama has more ways to win.”

If the pressure he feels is immense, Romney isn’t letting on. Romney is unflappable— much like the President he is trying to unseat. Both men are trim and disciplined to the point of being ascetic. No Newtish bloviating here. No McCain-esque tempers. No Clintonian appetites. Romney, a devout Mormon, eschews alcohol, tobacco and even coffee. Both appear devoted to their wives. Both are analytical thinkers who like their aides to come with data and competing viewpoints. Both graduated from Harvard law, though they travelled very different paths to get there.

Obama routinely cherry-picks from his autobiography to show he’s as Middle American as the next guy. He reminisces about cross-country road trips with his single mom in a Greyhound bus, sleeping at Howard Johnson’s. He talks about his grandfather getting an education on the G.I. Bill for veterans. He mentions his disabled father-in-law, who worked at a water filtration plant to give his kids the college education he never had.

Outside of his home state of Michigan, Romney generally leaves biography out. He doesn’t talk about his days at private boarding school in one of the country’s wealthiest enclaves, the son of an auto executive turned governor who lost a presidential bid after making incautious remarks. Nor does he mention his own grandfather, who was born in a Mormon colony in Mexico, where his ancestors moved after Utah banned polygamy.

Instead of talking about his childhood, he opens with a few sympathetic remarks for the victims of the movie theatre shooting in nearby Aurora, and then immediately gets down to business: “Today, I come to talk about making things better,” he says, and launches into a speech that sounds more like a presentation to shareholders than a political barnburner. He evenarrivedarmedwith a colour-coded chart he calls “a little bit of a report card” and points enthusiastically to what he calls “the little red arrows.”

The chart displays economic trends under Obama—and compares them to Romney’s record as governor. All of Obama’s arrows are red and point in the wrong direction. Jobs: down. Unemployment: up. Home prices: down. Budget deficit: up. Family income: down. “On all those measures, he got a red arrow, and I got a green arrow. If I’m elected president, my promise to you is I will get those arrows green again,” he explains cheerfully. It may not be the stuff of bumper stickers, but Romney beams at his prop.

There’s no bombast from here. He doesn’t say that Obama is the worst president in history, accuse him of socialism, question his birth certificate or proclaim he’s destroying the country. Romney says simply, almost dryly, “We’re not where we want to be.” Then he points to little black arrows showing that all the economic indicators pointed in the right direction in Massachusetts while he was governor. “The President,” he declares, “has been unsuccessful.”

He talks about Obama as if he were discussing a bad investment. “You look at the results and it’s been a disappointment,” he says.

Often criticized as a wooden speaker, Romney seems to get most animated when he preaches the gospel of capitalism. “I spent 25 years in the private sector. I understand how businesses decide to grow, when they decide to shrink, why they decide to go overseas, how they decide to come back here.” Romney says, his voice growing more excited with each statement. “I understand what it takes to get America working again! I understand that it’s small business in America that creates jobs. That people create jobs! Not government! And I’m going to get America working again!” he crescendoes, to an almostshout, as the audience explodes in applause, hoots, and shouts of “Go Mitt! Go Mitt!”

Success is the key promise of the Romney campaign, and a personal credo of the candidate. His message boils down to this: Obama punishes success, Romney creates it. And success is what so many Americans are craving after years of economic distress. Romney is betting that the independent voters who will swing the election still think Obama is a nice enough guy, but that after losing jobs and watching their home prices collapse, they just want someone to fix it. “I’m going to talk about how to make things better,” Romney intones.

Mike and Eileen Snider were in the audience in Colorado. Between them, the retirees have driven a school bus, worked in insurance, banking and built a cleaning business from the ground up. Now they worry about their two sons who are both out of work. “They are not living off the taxpayer,” Mike hastens to add. “They are picking up odd jobs.” The Sniders supported Gingrich in the primary, and when he dropped out they backed Santorum. But they have now embraced Romney. “Romney is a fine person. There is nothing wrong with him,” Mike says. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but it is enough. Adds Eileen: “I really would vote for any candidate other than Obama.”

Their concerns are economic. “He’s putting our children and grandchildren in massive debt,” Eileen says of the President. “He may be a very nice person,” adds Mike, “but it appears to me that he’s a socialist.”

In July, Obama played into this very fear with a gaffe of his own. Speaking at a rally in Virginia, Obama riffed about the role of government in creating the infrastructure that enables businesses to succeed. “Somebody invested in roads and bridges,” he said, as an example. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Clipped sound bites soon appeared on Fox News and in anti-Obama commercials, edited to the point that the President appears to be saying that small-business owners somehow literally didn’t build their own businesses. The Romney campaign seized on the comment, brandishing it as evidence that Obama is hostile to business. They ran ads featuring indignant business owners and held dozens of rallies across the country with the rallying cry, “I did build this.” In his speech, Romney reminds the audience of the phrase again and again. “I understand that it’s people who create jobs, not government,” he says to shouts of “Go Mitt!” The Sniders were particularly appalled by Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. Mike shakes his head, looking for the right word: “It sounds almost Communistic.”

Romney’s manner of speaking is earnest yet scripted, well-explained yet occasionally patronizing: “I want to lay out for you what I’m going to do. It’s five things, all right? I want you to remember five things,” he says. “I think we can remember five things?”

Those fives things are “Mitt Romney’s plan to strengthen the middle class.” The middle class has been a key campaign theme of Obama’s, and the President accuses Ronney of favouring the wealthy. Initially, Republicans responded by accusing Obama of Marxist “class warfare” in his rhetoric. But now they are unapologetically using the same language. The new “five-point” economic plan that Romney unveiled in Golden is, his aides concede, the “59-point” economic plan he released last fall, repackaged. Point one is more energy development in the U.S. and more infrastructure to import oil from Canada. “North American energy independence by 2020,” he promises. Plank two is big, but vague, and includes cuts to government spending as well as a cap that would keep spending to 20 per cent of GDP. A third plank is a collection of proposed corporate and income tax cuts, which may be at odds with budget balancing. (This is a key disagreement with Obama: the Democrat would keep most of the Bush tax cuts, but raise rates on the top two per cent of earners to where they were during the Clinton administration.) Romney also wants to sweep aside a variety of regulations that he says hinder economic growth, including the tougher rules brought in to regulate Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis, and the stricter corporate accounting rules passed after the Enron scandal in 2001. His idea: an unspecified “streamlined, modern regulatory framework.”

From the podium, Romney doesn’t follow some other Republicans who bash Obama’s health care reform as unconstitutional or a threat to personal freedom. (After all, he was first to pass such a plan in Massachusetts.) Instead, he characterizes it as an obstacle to job creation. “And I’m going to get rid of something that is scaring a lot of small business. We’ve got to get rid of Obamacare,” he says to shouts and applause. (Notably, he also pledges to “bring down the costs” of health care, and to prevent people from being denied insurance coverage due to pre-existing medical conditions, conceding the appeal of two main goals of Obama’s health care law.)

Rounding out his economic plan are promises to sign new trade agreements, crack down on trade violations including those by China, improve education and attract more skilled immigrants.

But the impact on the middle class has been the subject of debate. Brandishing a recent economic study by the Tax Policy Center, an independent think tank, Obama claims that Romney would have to pay for the upper-income tax cuts by closing off yet-unspecified tax loopholes—and those would have to fall more heavily on the middle class. The Obama team has even made up a web-based “tax calculator” where voters can enter in their income and see how much the Romney plan would supposedly cost them. Romney rejects the study but has not said which “loopholes” he will cut. His aides say details will be worked out with Congress.

Romney insists more tax cuts are not at odds with a balanced budget. “Taxes are connected to growth . . . More growth and less spending is the best way to cut our budget deficit,” he says, and goes on to talk about reducing taxes on small business.

The debate over taxes and budget became even more central to the election with Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is the author of a proposed budget that would severely cut government spending, including entitlement programs. Perhaps most controversially, the Ryan budget would reduce taxes for the wealthy at the same time that it reduced spending on Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for seniors, by converting it into a voucher system that would help them buy individual insurance policies in the private market. While Republicans applauded the Wisconsin congressman as a knowledgeable policy wonk who is courageous enough to tackle the country’s deficits, Democrats gleefully denounced the pick as a Tea Party-style radical. Obama called him “the ideological leader of Republicans in Congress” and dismissed the Romney-Ryan economic approach as “trickle-down fairy dust.”

But in Golden, Romney’s message is hitting home with C.J. Sands, a small business owner in her 50s who came to hear him speak. She and her husband provide back-office services (“outsourcing,” she notes, unapologetically). They built it “from the ground up,” she notes, seething at Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment. “I think it underscores how out of touch with business reality he is,” she fumed. “The small business people out there that the President demonizes are the same ones laying awake at night thinking about how you can pay your mortgage and your employees,” adds Sands. Chimes in her husband, Brian: “He doesn’t understand risk.”

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

During the summer, Romney also tried to fill in the blanks on his foreign policy. Judging by his speeches, Romney’s small government views stop at the U.S. border. His vision for America’s role abroad are grand: “I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power,” Romney asserted in a foreign policy-themed speech in Reno, Nev., in July. “I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known and that our influence is needed as much now as ever.”

Indeed, the military is the main area of government spending that Romney pledges to grow, not cut, particularly the U.S. Navy.

(Asked how he would find the tax revenue for the larger military and expanded Navy, especially given a promise not to increase the budget deficit, his foreign policy aide Richard Williamson referred to Romney’s plan to grow the economy by cutting taxes.)

Romney likes to talk about the U.S. as “the hope of the Earth.” He seems almost embarrassed by Obama’s multilateral approach to foreign affairs, finding it “apologetic.” Romney has brought in many Bush advisers to his foreign policy team. His top Middle East adviser is Dan Senor, best known from the Bush days as spokesman for Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority. Senor has since founded, along with other Iraq war boosters, a neo-conservative think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative, which calls for, among other things, an abandonment of Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia (which invited Russian co-operation, ending the deep-freeze of the George W. Bush era) and American intervention in Syria, including arming rebels and using military force to establish air-patrolled “safe zones” within the country. During Romney’s trip to the Middle East, Senor made headlines by asserting that Romney would endorse Israel’s right to bomb Iranian nuclear installations, something the Obama administration has been trying to keep Israel from doing. But Romney himself stopped short of such a statement.

Romney calls Russia “the No. 1 geopolitical foe” and argued that Obama’s decision to cancel a missile defence project that Bush had planned to set up in Poland and the Czech Republic was a wrong-headed attempt to placate Moscow. He accuses Obama of showing inadequate support for Israel, of being too complacent in the face of Iran’s nuclear progress, and insufficiently supportive of opposition movements in Iran and Syria. The Obama administration insists it has imposed the toughest sanctions in history against Iran, and has made it clear a military option has not been ruled out.

But beyond the bluster, Romney has put forward few significantly different policies than Obama. Romney criticized Obama for picking a pullout date from Afghanistan based on a political calendar, but has also said his goal would be to pull troops out by 2014. He has criticized Obama for not giving more stalwart support for protesters in Iran and now rebels in Syria, but he has not gone as far as some Republicans, such as Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who call for American military interventions in those countries. He has talked vaguely about arming unspecified “moderates” among Syrian rebels.

“Romney would like very much to appear to be anything other than Obama because he understands that among many Republicans and even some independents, it isn’t that these people are going to vote for Romney so much as they are going to vote against Obama,” says Marvin Kalb, a Brookings Institution scholar. “So rhetorically, in terms of the words he uses, he tries very much to sound more muscular, more tough, more direct, more old-fashioned American. And he regards Obama as being everything on the other side of those words.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he would be another Bush, says Kalb. “I believe you will probably get a Romney who is far more pragmatic, down to earth, than George W. Bush was.”

Toward the end of his speech in Golden, Romney switches from businessman to patriot mode. He no longer sings entire verses of America the Beautiful at rallies as he did during the Republican primary, but his economic plan, he says, is “as American as when the founders said our rights were not given to us by the government, but by the Creator,” waxing on about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

In Golden, he doesn’t adopt the culture warrior mode of so many of his former rivals, doesn’t talk about abortion or gay marriage, doesn’t rage against the “liberal elites,” or draw a line between “real America” and the rest, à la Sarah Palin. The word “socialist” never crosses his lips. The closest he comes is declaring at one point, “I don’t want to transform America into something that it’s not,” allowing the audience to fill in the blank with whatever they think Obama is turning their country into.

But notwithstanding the weak economy, notwithstanding Romney’s strengths, all summer long the Republicans have been nervous. They feel this election is theirs to lose, and that Romney has been coasting, relying too heavily on a weak economy to do Obama in. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, whose epic battles with the state’s labour unions over the last year became a national conservative cause, accused Romney of being too timid in his campaign and policy proposals. “I think there’s a lot of caution. I think the mistake they’ve made is feeling like it can just be a referendum on the President,” he said in late July. “There’s got to be more. People don’t just vote somebody out—they’ve got to vote somebody in.” Romney’s answer to that critique has been the bold but risky choice of Ryan: a statement that Romney is willing to take on the toughest issues facing the economy, but also a move to the ideological right in the midst of a general election campaign—a time when most presidential candidates prefer to move to the broad middle.

And while Romney’s focus is the economy, that doesn’t mean his campaign is ignoring the social issues that drive conservative Republican voters to the polls: opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, and undocumented immigration, to name a few. He does not talk about these issues when appealing to swing voters in battleground states. But he’s reaching out on those issues to supporters through conference calls, emails and old-fashioned direct mail.

His campaign is ramping up just as the Republican nominating convention gets underway on Aug. 27, in Tampa Bay, Fla. After Tampa, the real battle begins. And back in Golden, they know it. “Once the convention is over,” predicts Romney supporter Brian Sands, “the gunpowder will be lit.”

But in Golden, in front of national TV cameras, Romney hints at bipartisanship, appealing to those swing voters who are disgusted by the partisan gridlock in Washington, noting that as governor he worked with a state legislature that was 87 per cent Democratic. “We’ve got to have someone that goes to Washington, that buries the hatchet and says, ‘You know what? There are good Democrats, there are good Republicans that care about America. Let’s work together to get the American people

working, get some growth again,’ ” he says. It’s a line he later drops when campaigning in front of more conservative, Tea Party audiences.

After his speech, Romney hangs around, mobbed by the audience, looking relaxed and friendly. He lingers longer than expected, shaking every hand, signing autographs, and talking to supporters who mob him from all sides. Allen Fuller, a 35-year-old Internet business owner from Lafayette, La., squeezes through the crowd with his five- year-old daughter, Virginia, to meet him, and emerges beaming. “We need him,” Ful- ler says of Romney. “The last few years have been really hard.”

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