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Campaign 2012

GOP elite still not sold on Romney

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / October 5, 2011

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Just what does Mitt Romney have to do?

He has raised more money than any other candidate, emphasized his business background, and drafted a 160-page jobs plan. Polls show he would be the strongest contender against President Obama.

Yet Romney has repeatedly endured the awkward spectacle of GOP leaders pining for a new candidate to jump in the race.

First, it was Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, then Governor Rick Perry of Texas, and then Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who announced yesterday that he would not run.

The search for a more perfect candidate underscores how Romney, for all his strengths, has yet to win over part of the GOP elite, even in the Northeast financial world where he has deep connections.

While Romney’s differences with the Tea Party are well known, the Christie clamor showed how some Republican elders want a candidate with economic credentials who can tap into the emotions of the electorate in a way the cool, buttoned-down Romney cannot.

With Christie, they thought they had found their man.

Big, bellicose, and seemingly unvarnished, he is the anti-Romney, famous for bellowing, “Get the hell off the beach!’’ when Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the Jersey shore, and for declaring that he was going to “open a beer, order a pizza, and watch the Mets’’ when Democrats threatened to shut down state government.

His clashes with unions, budget cutting, and the widely circulated YouTube videos of his confrontations with critics have made him a “folk hero,’’ in the words of one conservative activist. Romney, by contrast, “is seen as more cautious and safer,’’ said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who has worked for George W. Bush and John McCain and was among those encouraging Christie to run.

“What people are really looking for today is authenticity, and they like bold and brash, especially on the Republican side right now,’’ McKinnon said. “That’s why there was an initial attraction to Rick Perry. And Chris Christie is bold and brash.’’

The courtship of Christie was all the more striking because he had been adamant that he was not going to run, even joking that he might have to commit suicide to stop all the White House chatter. Yet the calls for him to enter the race intensified after Perry, initially seen as the strongest challenger to Romney, faltered in debates and fell in the polls.

Among those who reportedly encouraged Christie to enter the race were Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, and William Kristol. Barbara Bush reportedly called Christie’s wife, Mary Pat, to soothe her anxiety about a presidential campaign. Daniels declared last month that he was “not taking ‘no’ ’’ from his friend in Trenton. And, according to the Associated Press, Governor John Kasich of Ohio also called Christie recently and urged him to run.

“A lot of the establishment Republicans like the idea of Chris Christie because he appeals to the Tea Party types without being one of them, and therefore they see him as somebody who can grab the popular imagination,’’ said David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association and former chairman of the American Conservative Union. He endorsed Romney during his last bid for the presidency, but has not backed any candidate this time.

Christie’s decision not to run now shifts the race in Romney’s favor, Republicans said, giving the former governor a chance to consolidate his support among the GOP establishment. Despite talk that Rudy Giuliani or Sarah Palin may make a late entry in the race, many party leaders presume the field is now settled.

Former senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire said Christie’s boosters, who include many deep-pocketed donors from the New York/New Jersey financial world, would naturally flock to Romney, given his background as a venture capitalist.

“Romney is the main benefactor of this decision, both in support from individuals and by not having another candidate out there from what you might call the experienced governor/Northeast wing of the party,’’ he said.

Gregg said he is “rather impressed’’ with Romney for gracefully “taking a lot of hits’’ from rivals.

Romney backers, at least publicly, had said they were not bothered by the Christie hubbub.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily that they don’t like Mitt; I think it’s just that they’re attracted to Chris Christie because of the job he’s done as governor,’’ said Trent Lott, the former senator from Mississippi, who supports Romney. “And if Christie did get in there, here he would come in under scrutiny because of all his previous statements and positions, and he’d have some problems, too.’’

Christie did not endorse any of the candidates yesterday, but he downplayed any suggestion that the drumbeat from influential Republicans trying to push him into the race signaled dissatisfaction with the current field.

“I don’t think it says anything particular about the field,’’ Christie said. “I’d like to think it says something about me.’’

Others, however, said it reflected lingering concerns among some establishment Republicans about Romney’s ability to connect as well with Tea Party activists and anxious middle-class voters as he does with party leaders.

“Mitt just really hasn’t caught on yet,’’ said Michael Reagan, a son of President Reagan and conservative commentator. “He can relate to the people who own the water cooler but, to win, he has to relate to the person who drinks water from it.’’

Some said Christie’s decision would fuel the hunt for a new Romney alternative among the current candidates. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll out yesterday showed Romney in the lead, and Georgia businessman Herman Cain surging into a tie with Perry for second place.

“There is a void on the populist right that is waiting to be filled,’’ said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and onetime McCain adviser. “And it still remains.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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