GOP praying for options

Published 2:32 pm Friday, April 22, 2011

Mitt Romney’s face looks as if it should be chiseled in stone. But he has all the warmth of a slab of granite.

Team Romney rolled out Mitt 2.0 in a taped message announcing — surprise! — that he’s preparing to run for president. An open collar under a casual leather jacket replaced the somber dark suits and starchy white shirts from his failed run in 2008. But in this case, clothes do not make — or makeover — the man. He was as boring as ever.

His video lasts less than three minutes but seems endless. Romney himself barely stays awake, repeating the same old refrain — jobs and business, business and jobs — with all the passion of a fourth grader reciting a poem in English class.

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This is not a trivial point; it’s central to understanding the politics of 2012 — or any year. Personality is not a sideshow; it is absolutely essential to the success of any presidential candidate. Just ask Al Gore, the Democratic version of Romney, who had trouble generating enough juice to light up a 100-watt bulb. Remember the joke Gore told about himself: He was so dull that his Secret Service code name was “Al Gore.” Perhaps Romney’s security detail will simply call him “Willard,” his real first name.

Romney brings a lot of baggage into the race. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, almost half of all voters expressed reservations (unfairly in our view) about supporting a Mormon, Romney’s faith tradition. Then there’s health care — as governor of Massachusetts, he supported an insurance plan that closely resembles the Democratic bill enacted last year. And his sharp shift to the right on social issues is well documented on YouTube.

But those are not his main problems. We’ve covered 12 presidential elections and stood outside of countless voting booths, and one thing we’ve hardly ever heard is some version of this line: “I voted for Gore because of his 16-point program on global warming.” Instead, as voters explain their choices, we’re much more likely to hear, “I like him … she understands me … he knows where I’m coming from.”

The most successful politicians of our age — Reagan, Clinton, Obama, even George W. Bush on a good day (with Laura by his side) — connected to individual voters on a personal basis. Gore didn’t. Neither did John McCain. One way to explain this quality is the old cliche: Whom would you rather have a beer with? You can only imagine having a beer with Romney at your farewell party, after he’s fired you.

This is why Republicans are so worried about next year. Romney is the clear front-runner in the early polls, drawing 21 percent of Republican primary voters in the Journal survey (but jumping to 40 percent when only the top-five candidates were listed). And Republicans have long followed a royalist tradition, nominating the candidate who is “next in line,” and Romney certainly fits that bill. But when Republicans look around for an alternative, many find the options, well, appalling. In the Journal poll, Donald Trump tied for second (with Mick Huckabee) at 17 percent.

“I don’t see anyone in the current field right now, and people say that to me, as well,” Rep. David Dreier, a shrewd California Republican told Politico. “Everybody’s looking for a Ronald Reagan, and they don’t see one.” Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia added: “We think we can beat the president, but we have to have somebody to beat him with.”

She’s right on both counts. Obama is hardly invulnerable. His average approval rating stands at 47.5 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, and anything under 50 percent is a warning to any incumbent. But whom is that “somebody” that can lead the charge?

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is a self-described “fat redneck” with a long history as a well-paid Washington lobbyist. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has to explain two divorces, three wives and one very loose tongue. Former Sen. Rick Santorum lost his re-election bid by 18 points. In 2008, Huckabee could never expand his base beyond evangelical Christians. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty makes Romney look colorful. Sarah Palin has the magnetism the men lack, but her negative ratings top 50 percent.

No wonder GOP insiders are dreaming about a governor — Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey —or even Gen. David Petraeus. “We’re going to see other folks,” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina told Politico. But that sounds more like a prayer than a prediction.

(Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), has just been published. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at