With the single-minded discipline and cold-blooded calculation of a cyborg, Mitt Romney is executing an aggressive campaign plan that has seen him storm to double-digit leads over his rivals in the first two states that will vote for the Republican presidential nominee. In Iowa, where Romney not too long ago polled in single digits, 30 percent of likely Republican voters now favor the former Massachusetts governor, according to a new Des Moines Register poll. That puts him 12 points ahead of his nearest rivals, Arizona senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New Hampshire, Romney has also surged from 13 percent in mid January to 35 percent today, and now holds a 16-point lead, according to a Zogby poll.
This success owes more to backroom strategy and calculation than to traditional on-the-stump, retail-style campaigning, although Romney’s smooth performances in the two recent Republican debates put a human face on the political algorithms charting his course. On the hustings, Romney barely discusses his four years as Massachusetts governor or his extensive leveraged-buyout career; he has offered no substantial policy proposals; and his comments on Iraq are indistinguishable from those of the other Republican contenders. In fact, most people have heard only about his negatives — as evidenced by a recent CNN poll showing that 54 percent of Americans would “definitely not” vote for Romney. National media have highlighted his politically inspired flip-flops on social issues such as abortion — Newsweek titled its February cover story GOVERNOR ROMNEY, MEET GOVERNOR ROMNEY — and his religion, which both Time and 60 Minutes made central to their prominent Romney profiles this month.
Romney has nonetheless made gains, and he has done it through sheer strategic force. Along with his focused, disciplined team, he has methodically played the media and spun the cable-TV pundits to get the public to view him through the prism prepared by the Romney campaign. The result: he has blasted his way into the nation’s political consciousness. No longer a fuzzily defined, improbable governor from a liberal state, he now walks tall in the GOP. While McCain and Giuliani may be ahead in the national polls, Romney has emerged as the guy to watch, the man with momentum. He may not yet be the candidate to beat. But, even better, he is poised to take down those once thought to be invincible.
That ascension began with his money-raising prowess, demonstrated on January 8 with a made-for-the-media fundraising event, “National Call Day,” held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (at a cost of well more than a quarter-million dollars), where the Romney campaign claimed to raise $6.5 million. Overnight, conventional wisdom put Romney into a three-person “top tier” with McCain and Giuliani, a baseless perception that in turn justified a glut of attention for the single-digit-polling candidate.
By the end of March, when candidates released their first finance reports, Romney’s $20 million tally outpaced even the well-connected superstar candidates. The money itself is almost meaningless — Romney, with an estimated personal fortune of a half billion dollars, will spend whatever he needs — but it solidified the perception that he’d leaped into front-tier status.
That was exactly the game plan. Romney’s strategists had, from the beginning, considered the first-quarter fundraising “the first primary,” says one person close to his campaign.
The “second primary,” according to the same source, has even less real-world relevance: the Iowa straw poll in Ames on August 11, a date that’s been circled on Romney-campaign calendars since the fall. In the Republican tradition, campaigns spend enormous sums to bus supporters to the event, feed and entertain them, and buy their $30 admission to the state GOP convention where they cast their votes. Although the participants are unrepresentative of caucus-goers, and their purely symbolic votes are paid for, media, pundits, and party insiders treat the results as portents from Delphi.
“The Iowa straw poll is amazingly meaningless in any large-term sense,” says Bill Mayer, a political-science professor at Northeastern University.
Part one of Romney’s strategy was a total success. Since the end-of-March campaign-finance disclosure, everyone is treating him as a viable candidate, despite his miserable poll numbers up to that point and his obvious flaws — “his appalling record as governor of Massachusetts, and more flip-flops than any candidate in recent memory,” as Mayer puts it.
Even the constant drumbeat of questions about his Mormon faith has served only to keep Romney on magazine covers and cable news networks. If Romney’s campaign is like a blockbuster-movie promotion, the Mormon issue has been the lead actor’s convenient scandal leading up to the premiere — the equivalent of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s tabloid courtship before the debut of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Clearing the field
To terminate the competition, Romney is employing the same playbook George W. Bush used to devastate a crowded field of candidates eight years ago. Both came to the campaign unburdened by a significant, defining political record — Bush because his only elected office, governor of Texas, has minimal power, and Romney because, after two neither sterling nor disgraceful years, he was more or less absent without leave (except for occasional photo-ops).