posted on April 25, 2012 16:02
The all-but-certain presidential nominee emerges from his party’s primaries bruised and bloodied. He was mocked relentlessly as a flip-flopper and a panderer, a career politician with no inner core, a former governor with little to brag about. The brutal march to the nomination drove his favorability ratings into the ground.
He faces an incumbent President with real advantages: solid accomplishments in foreign affairs, a likeable personality and an experienced, ruthless campaign team. A bad economy dogs him, but his advisers are confident they can make the opponent an unacceptable alternative.
That’s the story today – and 20 years ago. It’s what Bill Clinton faced at this same point in 1992. In November, he soundly beat President George H.W. Bush.
The Clinton model demonstrates the opportunity – and the problem – Mitt Romney faces.
Clinton had the political smarts to see his problems honestly – and confront them. His campaign launched “the Manhattan Project.” It was an intensive effort to explore – through polls and focus groups – what people thought of him and what they knew and didn’t know about him.
Team Clinton learned a simple lesson: They needed to fill in the public’s picture of Clinton. He was seen as nothing more than a politician, one who hadn’t been the best husband. That didn’t surprise the campaign. The surprise was that the public also thought of Clinton as a rich son of privilege whose path to power was smooth and foreordained.
That’s when the campaign started to tell the story of “the Man From Hope” – the poor boy whose father died, who took care of his mother and brother, who worked hard to get an education and make something of himself. By the time of the Democratic convention, the public had met another Bill Clinton altogether.
That is the challenge for Romney today: reintroducing himself to the American public as a real person, not the cardboard caricature.
But Romney has a problem – actually, two problems. At his core, he is two things: a ruthlessly successful businessman and a devout Mormon.
First, how does he tout his business success without opening himself up to a devastating counterpunch: the people he laid off and the companies he loaded up with debt?
Second, how does he tell about the central – and admirable – role that his religious faith has played in his life without scaring the willies out of people, including a lot of Republicans, who are leery of the Mormon Church?
If Romney can’t paint a new picture in the public eye, he’ll never be President.