CHICAGO – There was a candidate at the outset of the Republican primary who seemed a decent bet to win it all, or at the very least contend until the final days of the race. He had the organization of a top-notch campaign staff, the experience as governor of a traditionally blue state, the war chest to mount a strong bid, the appearance of your everyday politician, and the no-skeletons-in-the-closet resume built to withstand the national spotlight.
But today Tim Pawlenty is an afterthought, the first candidate to exit the race when he dropped out after the Iowa straw poll in August. Despite his strength on paper, Pawlenty simply did not resonate with voters, which, after all, is the only thing that really matters in political campaigns.
Could Mitt Romney be suffering from a similar problem? Just like Pawlenty, Romney seems to have it all, on paper. The former governor of Massachusetts has a well-honed resume, the experience of his 2008 bid for the White House, a seasoned campaign staff, gobs of money, and a clean-as-a-whistle background. In fact, Romney has far more support than Pawlenty ever did.
But here we are, less than three weeks from the Iowa caucuses, and Romney has been unable to gain any ground in the polls in the past six months. Month after month, there he is, stuck with around 25 percent support, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.
There are two ways to look at that fact. The glass-half-full approach is the one Romney has taken: While other candidates surge to the top of the polls only to plunge back down – see Cain, Herman; and Perry, Rick – Romney has held steady, if not at the top then at least in the top two.
“For the entire last year, I’ve been either at the lead or number two,” Romney told Politico last week. “That’s a pretty good place to be.”
Then there’s the glass-half-empty approach: While one-quarter of Republican voters are sure about their support for Romney, the remaining three-quarters of voters are frantically seeking another option.
“It may be that Newt is appealing to something that … Mitt isn’t appealing to,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “There’s something wrong when you’ve been running as long as Mitt has and you’re at 25 percent. … Seventy-five percent of the other Republicans are telling you something about him. … I think it’s deeper than just a) ‘he’s kind of staid’ and everything else.”
“I ran against him in ’07, ’08, I have never seen a guy – and I’ve run in a lot of elections, supported a lot of people, opposed them – never seen a guy change his positions on so many things, so fast, on a dime,” he added.
Whether it is that reputation as a flip-flopper or eyebrow-raising comments such as ”corporations are people” or his offer to Perry of a $10,000 bet, Romney has yet to gain any more support than he had when the GOP primary began.
A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Tuesday revealed that 40 percent of Republican voters back Newt Gingrich, compared to 23 percent for Romney and less than 10 percent for the rest of the candidates. While Romney acknowledged to Politico that Gingrich is the front-runner at the moment, Romney also noted that it is “a very fluid electorate” and he expects to win the nomination.
“I’ve got – what? – five or six more months to make that a reality,” he said.
But what more can Romney do to convince GOP voters, a good chunk of whom might have already made up their minds about him? For starters, he can tap into his ample war chest.
Romney is hitting the airwaves this week in South Carolina, the third state to vote in the primary. He is already on the air in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He can also get through to voters by becoming more media-friendly, something that he has started to do this past week. After for the most part steering clear of interviews this year, a strategy that backfired when he appeared frustrated and flustered during a sit-down with FOX News a few weeks ago, he has lately found time to chat with almost every major national news outlet, including an interview with ABC News before last Saturday’s debate in Des Moines.
Another way Romney can try to boost his support is by calling into action his volunteer army. In Iowa, he has a network of motivated, politically-connected volunteers fighting on his behalf while he campaigns elsewhere.
While Romney has pledged not to make “offensive” or “incendiary” statements about Gingrich, that doesn’t mean he is going to stay quiet and let the former House speaker run away with his party’s nomination. Far from it.
He called Gingrich “zany” in an interview this week with the New York Times, described him as “a very wealthy man” and hardly a member of the middle class in a sit-down with CBS News, and told the Washington Post that Gingrich was “an extraordinarily unreliable leader in the conservative world.”
All the criticisms might be working. Romney insiders have suggested this week that Gingrich may be starting to slip in the polls. If Romney can knock Gingrich off his perch, then who will be left for Republican voters to turn to in their search for a so-called “anti-Romney alternative”?
Cain has suspended his campaign in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. Perry was sitting pretty earlier this fall, but quickly collapsed after a rash of poor debate performances and questionable comments, highlighted by his “oops” gaffe at a debate outside of Detroit last month. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll in August, but has since plunged toward the bottom of the polls. Ron Paul finished a close second to Bachmann in the straw poll and could spring a surprise in the Iowa caucuses, but is viewed as too much of a fringe candidate to make a serious bid for the nomination.
Rick Santorum has yet to gain any traction at all. And Jon Huntsman has focused solely on New Hampshire to the point that his poll numbers were so low in Iowa that he was failed to make the cut for ABC’s recent debate there.
Romney’s argument, then, could be that while he might not be exactly what the GOP’s Tea Party wing is looking for, he remains the Republican with the best chance at knocking off President Obama in the general election.
In his interview with ABC’s David Muir, Romney said there is “no question in my mind” that Gingrich would be an easier opponent for Obama to defeat than he would be.
After Pawlenty’s abrupt withdrawal from the GOP race after his disastrous showing at the straw poll, the former Minnesota governor decided to endorse Romney and has since appeared on the campaign trail on numerous occasions to stump for him. Maybe along the way he has offered Romney some pointers on how to avoid a similar fate, despite their similar problems.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.