Saturday morning his time and Saturday afternoon my time, I had the chance to talk briefly with Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2008. The following is not quite an exact quote, as my tape recorder picked a most convenient time to die on me; it’s the best transcription my finger speed could achieve.
Jim: Technically my beat at the Hillary Spot is the Democratic primary… Do you have any thoughts on the dynamics of what’s going on in the opposition party?
Gov. Romney: Well, I’m not a political pundit, I don’t make it a practice to strategize on the developments in Democratic party – or my own party, for that matter. Right now I’m focus on my own message and policy initiatives… I will say that it sure looks to me like Hillary Clinton is far and away most likely to receive nomination.
Jim: So at this time in the previous cycle, the flavor of the month was Howard Dean, Dr. “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for” and “YEAARRRRGH.” This year, it seems to be Obama. Is this a sign that the mood of the country has shifted, that anger has been tried and rejected as a way to galvanize support?
Gov. Romney: This has been my first occasion to travel around the country, but what I have seen is that Americans want to less talk and less bickering and more progress and action. We face some extraordinary challenges as a nation – health care, our schools are falling behind the rest of the world’s, too much of our paychecks are going to taxes. Americans see that Washington bickers and points fingers, and they want to see some action and solutions.
Jim: I know elected officials don’t always like hypotheticals, but I think you’ll like this one. You win the presidency in 2008, and in January 2009, right after you’re sworn in, the leaders of the House and Senate say, ‘to honor your mandate, we will pass any three pieces of legislation you like. Beyond that, we’ll fight you tooth and nail.’ What would those three pieces of legislation be?
Gov. Romney: I’m going outlining over the next year my policy prescriptions for a whole series of matters. It’s tough to say what my first three pieces of legislation would be, or if I could only pass three, which those would be. My priorities are several: first to win the battle against the jihad. Second to help the country become more competitive; I want us to reach standards so that they exceed those of Asia. [I believe the governor was referring to education and economic productivity.]
I want to help solve our domestic weaknesses – the failure of health care, failure of our schools. And I want to make us independent of foreign oil. I want to be an action oriented president, and the president can focus on more than one topic at a time.
Jim: I’m glad you spoke at the National Review Institute summit, even though I wasn’t able to attend. I presume you saw the comments on the Corner by Rich Lowry, that you should have addressed Iraq more. Any reaction?
Gov. Romney: Well, he’s correct that I didn’t talk a great deal about Iraq; I wanted to concentrate on Iran. You have different speeches for different audiences. I had spoken about Iraq before, and in fact I spoke about Iraq a great deal yesterday.
Jim: Was it a fair criticism?
Gov. Romney: All criticism is fair; it represents the viewpoint of the author it is true that in my address I didn’t speak much about Iraq. But I have in other speeches. Next week, I’ll be speaking at the Detroit Economic Club, where I won’t be speaking about Iraq or Iran there, I’ll be speaking about the economy. I spoke a great deal about Iran at the Herzliya Conference in Israel. In any given speech, you can’t speak on all important topics. I can understand that Rich felt I should have spoken more about Iraq.
Jim: I’m happy that I’ve got work covering a campaign starting in early 2007, but I can imagine not everyone is thrilled by the fact that we’re having, in effect, a 23-month election cycle, and a 13-month primary (at least), which is much longer than in the past. What does the longer cycle change for a campaign like yours?
Gov. Romney: Not having been a part of previous cycles as a candidate, it’s hard to judge, but I was speaking to George Stephanopoulos by phone earlier this week and he mentioned that he was hired as the first staff member of Clinton campaign in would have been October of this year of that cycle. [In other words, Steph was hired in October 1991.] It gives you a sense of how the process has changed just in that short period of time. The bad news is that a campaign needs lots of money, more money for airplane fares, more money for staff. But it is fun, because with a longer campaign, you get to meet a lot of people.
Jim: What’s your goal in the coming months, before, say, the first debate in April?
Gov. Romney: At this first stage you listen as much as you speak. There are lot of questions asked, lots of discussions, one on one, and I use these occasions to describe my views about the future of this country and about where we’re going to be.
Jim: What’s been the greatest challenge of the campaign so far?
Gov. Romney: Hmm. It’s gone very well so far, I think the challenge might be that I’m having a hard time answering that question. I think it’s important to hire the right team, and I’ve been very successful so far. Our financial team is strong so far, I think you saw that we raised $6.5 million on our first day. We have a good ground team in each of early primary states, and a good national team. The question will be, can the candidate keep up?
Romney was preparing to speak at a Lincoln Day dinner in Louisville, Kentucky, and then heading on to meetings in Cincinnati.