Romney Waits as G.O.P. Flirts With Alternates
September 29th, 2011
The New York Times
By: Jeff Zeleny
The Republican who may have the strongest shot of winning the White House, at least in the eyes of President Obama and his advisers, is Mitt Romney. Now, if Mr. Romney could only persuade Republican voters.
After a summer spent skillfully navigating the obstacles of an unpredictable race, and after consistently rising above his rivals during three debates, Mr. Romney still faces one central question: Will he ever be able to satisfy Republicans?
The latest drumbeat of adoration aimed at luring someone new into the race — this time, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — is also a slap at Mr. Romney, whose effort to consolidate support from donors and party activists is impeded every time another potential candidate surfaces.
“Who knows, maybe he’ll get in,” Mr. Romney said in New Hampshire on Wednesday, smiling when asked about the speculation surrounding Mr. Christie. “It’d be fun if he got in.”
The time has long passed for Mr. Romney to be the first choice in the hearts of many Republicans. So his strategy, by necessity, has evolved into being the last choice, an eat-your-vegetables candidate who may only be seen as more appealing when he is matched up alongside his rivals.
No candidate in the Republican field has spent more time preparing to be president than Mr. Romney. (That, some supporters believe, is not entirely a positive attribute.) He relentlessly studied what went wrong with his 2008 race and has unquestionably become a better candidate, as he showed during back-to-back debates in September.
He has managed, so far, to finesse his way around the concerns of ideological shape-shifting that once seemed a deal breaker to many conservatives. Questions about the health care plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts have not overshadowed his candidacy. And he has not been pushed to address his Mormon faith, which created a stir four years ago and prompted him to give a speech seeking to explain his beliefs.
Now, just when it seemed that Mr. Romney might finally reap the rewards of his work, as conservative leaders openly groused about the unsteady performance of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, another week in his campaign has been spent watching donors, party establishment figures, the news media and voters flirt with Mr. Christie. And the month of September is ending just as it began, with a contingent of Republicans still searching for a fresh candidate to challenge Mr. Obama next year.
“It’s human nature to think the grass is always greener somewhere else,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, whose presidential candidacy ended when he was overtaken by the rise of Representative Michele Bachmann. He endorsed Mr. Romney and predicted that other Republicans would too, saying, “He’s the most capable, most knowledgeable and most electable candidate.”
In the case of Mr. Christie, a contingent of prominent Republican donors has been leading the effort to enlist him. The high-profile effort has warned away many contributors from signing on with Mr. Romney or Mr. Perry until they have a clear sense of the field.
“There is enough chatter and phone calls and static — whatever you call it in the spy business — that everyone is just sitting around,” said Ray Washburne, a Dallas businessman and top donor to Mr. Pawlenty who has not realigned with a candidate. “There is confusion among the main donors. No one has signed up with either major campaign in the last three weeks.”
Several Republican contributors in New York and elsewhere said they found Mr. Christie more appealing, even though their business experience is similar to that of Mr. Romney, who spent years working at a private equity firm. They view Mr. Christie as having the credibility to unite the establishment and Tea Party enthusiasts.
There are still some factors working in Mr. Romney’s favor.
A renewed focus on fiscal matters, rather than social issues, has helped Mr. Romney avoid what had been persistent questions about his previous support for abortion rights. It also has allowed him to keep his message focused on the economy.
Still, the passion surrounding Mr. Romney’s candidacy has failed to match the fervor of the moment for Republicans, many of whom are angry, hungry and determined to defeat Mr. Obama. The next phase of the campaign, where Mr. Romney is likely to be the subject of attacks from his rivals, will help answer whether voters are willing to be pragmatic and support a candidate who has a stronger general election appeal.
As Mr. Romney campaigned at a town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire on Wednesday, he was praised by a questioner for becoming a better candidate, a comment that drew applause from his audience. But several other voters suggested they retained a level of ambivalence about his candidacy.
“That piece of magic that got Barack Obama elected, I don’t know if Romney has that,” said Susan Bertrand, a nurse from Massachusetts, who came to see Mr. Romney in Goffstown.
A friend, Sherry Boudreau, a nurse from Salem, N.H., added, “If you could only combine Mitt Romney with Herman Cain.”
The rapid rise of Mr. Perry’s candidacy initially worried many Romney supporters. They feared that the authenticity that oozes from the Texas governor could reinforce the notion that the former Massachusetts governor adapts his positions and persona to the needs of the moment.
That has become the central theme of criticism from Mr. Perry, who has steadily increased his attacks on Mr. Romney’s credibility as a conservative. He has urged Republicans to select a nominee who has the sharpest distinctions with the president. He has referred to Mr. Romney as “Obama-lite.”
At the end of a meeting with voters on Wednesday at St. Anselm College, where he directed nearly all of his attention to the president and not his Republican rivals, Mr. Romney brushed aside questions about whether he was insulted that some were not pleased with his candidacy.
“I’ve got a lot of people in this country who are pleased with my candidacy,” Mr. Romney said, “and my job is to make that even larger.”