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Brian McGrory

Get real, Romney

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / June 3, 2011

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STRATHAM, N.H. — This is not the way Mitt Romney wanted it all to begin.

His own Republican Party is desperately searching for somebody else to run. First it wanted Haley Barbour, a good-old-boy lobbyist turned governor of — drum roll here, please — Mississippi, but he wouldn’t get in. Then it wanted Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana who has the charisma of Corn Flakes, but he wouldn’t get in either.

They keep talking about the loudmouth New Jersey governor, despite the fact he’s adamant that he’s not getting in, or another Bush (Jeb), or the governor of Texas, though we had one of those recently and you be the judge of how that worked out.

Then there are the party elders who despise him, violating the Republican mantra of unity and harmony. The authoritative book on the 2008 campaign, “Game Change,’’ had John McCain referring to Romney in a way we can’t repeat here, Rudy Giuliani declaring Romney “will say anything,’’ Mike Huckabee saying “I don’t think Romney has a soul.’’

Add to this the fact that what he thought would be his signature accomplishment, universal health care reform in Massachusetts, is looking like his biggest obstacle to the nomination, despite that dramatic PowerPoint rebuttal he did last month that has so many enthralled onlookers thinking, “I only wish his font size was bigger.’’

Finally, there’s Sarah Palin, a politician with all the gravitas of a hummingbird but none of the insight, gobbling up attention by doing and saying precisely nothing of any logic or merit, even on the day of his announcement.

So, against this shaky backdrop, what does Romney do when he pulls into this quintessential New Hampshire town yesterday to launch his presidential campaign? He hits the cover off the ball, that’s what — maybe not for a home run, but at least a wall-ball double, one that may begin changing the tone of the game. He was confident, more so as he went along. He was pointed in his attacks on Barack Obama without being shrill. He poked fun at himself.

Watching Romney’s speech yesterday was a little like going back in time, back to 2002 when he won the election for Massachusetts governor by effectively portraying himself as a straightforward, business-minded outsider who would get caught in none of the traps that snare lifelong, overly ambitious politicians. He followed that up with a couple of good years in office, until he dedicated his life to his political ambition and didn’t miss an opportunity to pander, vacillate, make outright reversals on gut-check stands. It got bad.

But here we are in 2011 and he didn’t make one reference to any of the social issues that wrapped him up like a pretzel last time around. He doesn’t have to. We’re in a painful economy. Gay marriage and Roe v. Wade don’t seem so controversial to the voters who can’t find jobs or are scared stiff about keeping the ones they have. Romney’s resume — starting a business, reviving a failing Olympiad, serving as governor of a major industrial state — has inevitable appeal. The timing suits him to a T.

He also has the benefit of this oddball collection of opponents. Forget the big tent that Republicans used to brag about; now it’s a circus tent, with Newt Gingrich and his half-million dollar line of credit at Tiffany’s; Michele Bachmann, who thought the Revolutionary War began in New Hampshire; and Rick Santorum, who blamed Boston and its liberalism for causing the scandal of pedophilic priests. Palin will fit right in. Once he gets past this group, in a general election, amid a shaky economy, anything can happen.

Can he succeed? Put it this way: Romney sacrificed the kind of authenticity that Americans treasure when he pandered for votes four years ago. He not only needs to show that he’s experienced, he has to prove that he’s real. Say this about voters: They can spot a phony from miles away.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. His email is mcgrory@globe.com.