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Joanna Weiss

Content to be Mr. Good Enough

This time around, Romney’s relaxed, friendly, and avoiding risks - and it’s working

(Getty Images)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / October 2, 2011

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GOFFSTOWN, N.H.

AS EVERY presidential candidate knows, reporters in search of a sound bite don’t coddle. So it was when Mitt Romney faced the Fourth Estate after a town hall meeting last week. Bunch of downers, these guys: How does he feel about the clamor for Chris Christie? How does he feel about dissatisfaction with the GOP field? Does he mind that he isn’t setting voters on fire?

As expected, Romney smiled and parried. “It’d be fun’’ if Christie jumped in. The voters just want to get this right. In early-primary states, “we’re doing pretty darned well.’’ It was campaign claptrap, yes, but that last part rings true: At this stage, it suits him beautifully to be Mr. Good Enough.

Mr. Good Enough has money, legitimacy, attention; his town hall meeting at St. Anselm College drew a standing-room crowd. And because he’s the fall-back option, he doesn’t have to sell himself too hard, wow anyone with his oratory skills, present a case much stronger than “Here I am. In plaid!’’

Romney never seemed convincing as a red meat kind of guy. His conversation at St. Anselm was more like candidate dim sum: A check in every box. Country music played before he entered the room. The campaign had brought along an electronic running counter of the national debt. In his opening speech, he cracked some Obama-administration-as-Titanic jokes and talked about “American greatness.’’

All of which is. . . fine. Romney isn’t running an idea campaign or a cult-of-personality campaign. He’s running a resume campaign. And the national mood - economic anxiety, pox on incumbents - suits his resume quite nicely, so long as no one presses on details. Business background equals job creation, right? Let’s just not bring up that history of layoffs. He applied his private-sector skills to government, see? Let’s just not talk about his pillar achievement in office.

In New Hampshire, strikingly, no one did. Not a single question about RomneyCare. In fact, there weren’t many Romney-centric questions at all, save from the Michigan native who loved Romney’s dad, and the disgruntled business executive who said that Romney, of all people, should know better than to say that higher taxes stifle hiring.

Romney didn’t give a personal answer; he went straight to the talking points, which seemed to satisfy the crowd. On hot-button issues, he falls on back on states’ rights. (A shout-out to the 10th Amendment got one of the afternoon’s biggest cheers.) On immigration, he knows - from Rick Perry’s experience - that he has to sound sufficiently hard-line: build that wall, no in-state tuition. (After the event, one woman told me she wants to get rid of government-subsidized translators. “They need an interpreter,’’ she said, “let them pay for it.’’)

Romney was wise enough to issue believable disclaimers, in preparation for a general election. To remind the crowd that he thinks legal

immigrants are fine. To say he believes humans contribute to climate change, even though he doesn’t know how much.

It’s all mildly dissatisfying, but it’s also working. A lot of things are working in his favor right now. He’s much-improved as a campaigner on the second go-around. He’s relaxed and friendly, quick on his feet. He doesn’t get testy. He works the stump without trashing Massachusetts.

None of this is quite the same as leadership. And it’s not as if there aren’t opportunities. Last week, the Globe’s Tracy Jan wrote a devastating story about health care in Texas, which has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country. People are suffering and dying. That doesn’t happen here. And if Romney had the guts to throw those facts and stats around, he might change a few minds about RomneyCare.

But that would mean risk, and the Mr. Good Enough shtick is working fine right now - for Romney, and the voters, too. One woman in New Hampshire told me she didn’t mind that that Romney had flip-flopped on issues, so long as he’d flipped to positions she liked. There’s a lot to be said for standards that are only medium-high.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.