Romney failed the 'authentic' test

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For many Republican insiders, it was love at first sight: Mitt Romney had an exquisite resume, a command of the issues and boatloads of money to finance a presidential campaign. As Romney started wooing support in Washington, some lawyers and lobbyists were so smitten that they endorsed him after meeting him only once or twice.

But the collapse of Romney's campaign contains an important reminder that what impresses in political backrooms does not always impress voters. A long list of political assets, and the support of party leaders, is not enough to make up for a failure to connect with voters and to deliver a clear, consistent message.

Although much of the Republican establishment called him an authentic conservative, Romney, in his appeals to voters, never overcame charges that he had flip-flopped his way through his political career -- on abortion, gay rights and other issues of importance to those he was hoping to win over.

"People fundamentally understand where John McCain and Mike Huckabee are coming from. But in Mitt Romney's case, that was harder to discern," said Terry Holt, an advisor to President Bush's 2004 campaign. "There is too much uncertainty about who Mitt Romney really is."

Being seen as "authentic" has ended up being more important than a big bankroll in winnowing the GOP candidate field. The top survivors in the Republican primary season -- McCain and Huckabee -- are seen in public opinion surveys as "straight talkers" who have run shoestring campaigns against candidates with huge war chests, such as Romney and onetime hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Romney raised $90 million for his campaign, including $35.5 million of his own money. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, raised $61.6 million and spent almost $49 million last year.

McCain, by contrast, raised $42 million in 2007, while Huckabee was an also-ran in the money race, collecting $9 million.

The once-crowded candidate field was a reflection of divisions within the party at a time when there was no undisputed heir apparent to Bush. Romney tried to position himself as the conservative standard-bearer in the crowd, but with limited success. Many conservatives remained suspicious of his more moderate past, and other candidates competed with him for the conservative mantle.

"We were not able to get the race in a form where there was a straightforward contrast" between Romney and less conservative Republicans such as McCain and Giuliani, said Tom Rath, a Romney advisor.

Romney also suffered from running against a well-known war hero who had already run for president -- an asset for McCain in a party that tends to favor candidates, like Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole, who have run for president before and are seen as next in line for the office.

Because he started out as a little-known former governor of Massachusetts, Romney was particularly vulnerable to efforts by his opponents to define him before he defined himself for the public.

And from early on, he was portrayed as an opportunist who had changed his position on important issues for political purposes -- tacking to the left while governor, then to the right as he prepared to run for president.

He explained himself over and over again, pointing to the challenges of running a liberal state. But he never quite got off the defensive.

And Romney made it harder to escape charges that he was shading his past for political gain.

For much of the campaign, he was burdened by having to explain his claims of being a "lifelong hunter," then admitting he shot only "small varmints" -- and infrequently. He claimed he saw his father march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then conceded he did not mean "saw" literally.

Meanwhile, the rationale for his candidacy seemed to be in constant flux: He was the conservative candidate, the candidate of change, the candidate best equipped to deal with the economy, the outsider.

He also may have been hurt by mistrust of his Mormon faith. But that probably was not as big a factor as concerns that he was not straightforward with voters. In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll late last year, voters were asked which of the top-tier candidates was "best at saying what they believe, rather than saying what they think the voters want to hear."

Only 8% named Romney.

The most voters, 20%, cited Huckabee; 13% named McCain.

Romney "simply could not convince voters that he was authentic on any level," said political scientist Andrew J. Polsky of Hunter College in New York. "Romney tried to rewrite himself completely. People just didn't buy it."

Polsky said the demise of Romney's and Giuliani's candidacies suggested that Republicans from liberal places could not win nationally, where they faced a more conservative GOP.

"A Republican in Massachusetts has to run to the left," Polsky said. "Once you've taken those positions, they haunt you on the national level."

janet.hook@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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