The GOP race: It’s Romney vs. Romney
EVENTUALLY, IT comes down to a two-man race: Mitt Romney versus Mitt Romney.
Herman Cain leads at least one national poll. But the backdrop to the Republican nomination contest is the question of whether Romney can pull off a major rebranding.
Will primary voters accept the new Romney, who is focused solely on economic issues, and forget about the old one, who meandered from center to right on social issues? Then, can he convince a broad swath of Americans that he feels their pain, even though he made some of his fortune causing pain to workers who were cut loose in the name of corporate reorganization?
But for the Cain boomlet, the Republican presidential field is all Romney.
Governor Rick Perry will soon be headed back to Texas, after a series of poor performances and a Washington Post story about a rock with a racially offensive word located on land his family leased. Exactly when the rock was painted over and by whom are details lost to history. But nothing can paint over the political trouble the story caused him.
Michele Bachmann proves that a female candidate can wield a sharp tongue while wearing pearls and a bouffant. But, during last week’s debate, Bachmann didn’t waste time on Romney. She focused on Iowa rivals Perry and Cain. Her shot at Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan - upside down it’s “6-6-6,’’ she said, adding that “the devil’s in the details’’ - led to other candidates expanding upon her line of attack.
Cain’s tax math, plus his embrace of Alan Greenspan as his model replacement for Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, adds up to trouble. If Cain retains his lead in national polls, he can expect what came Perry’s way - tough scrutiny and tough headlines.
Newt Gingrich’s primary contribution to the debate was the suggestion that Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank should go to jail. Jon Huntsman showed how desperate he is for attention with a bad joke about Cain’s tax plan, saying he thought the 9-9-9 referred to the price of pizza - an uncharacteristically graceless crack taken at the expense of the ex-pizza mogul. Rick Santorum was never going to be the nominee, and Ron Paul will never grow beyond a passionate but limited constituency.
That leaves Romney exactly where he thinks he wants to be, ready to break away in a Republican nomination fight that is engineered to give him a quick nod. Early primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada, and Florida can help Romney wrap up early. Sensing the outcome, Democrats are already circulating campaign videos that show an endless loop of historic Romney flip-flops, with real-time updates as new issues emerge. President Obama, who has flip-flop problems of his own, last week took a shot at Romney for failing to support renewal of middle-class tax breaks.
Explaining flip-flops is part of Romney’s challenge, even though his Republican rivals have failed miserably at pointing them out. Perry’s pathetic attempts at nailing his rival are a large part of the reason the Texas governor is going nowhere but home. Democrats will do a better job. But in the long run, voters who are worried about jobs and mortgage payments may be more willing to see Romney as “evolver’’ versus “flip-flopper.’’
The harder part for Romney will be getting Americans to like him, always a precondition to voting for any presidential candidate. It’s trite but true. Ask Michael Dukakis, John Kerry or John McCain.
Democrats picked Obama over Hillary Clinton, because at the time, they found him easier to like. The grueling primary season also helped Obama seal a personal connection that carried over to his general election campaign.
Even if Romney easily wins the GOP nomination, he will still have to show what he hasn’t shown before: heart, soul, and ability to grow on the national stage.
That’s the fight ahead. It pits Romney, the rebranded presidential candidate who is selling himself as benevolent job creator and economic guru, against Romney, the cold businessman who bought up companies and laid off workers to improve the bottom line.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.