It’s becoming conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney is a better campaigner than he was in 2008. Is it true? On the evidence this week in New Hampshire, I think the answer is “yes,” but that it’s mostly a function of the different context of 2012.
Take the debates. He’s thrived in them, but he hasn’t had much competition, certainly not compared with last time. In 2008, he was the most hated man on stage and was pounded by John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee, all men with gravitas or great communication skills or both. I’m not sure any of the other candidates this year matches any of those four on a debate stage. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain are both strong voices, but Gingrich has been harder on debate moderators than on his fellow candidates, and Cain has more often assisted Romney than slammed him.
Rick Perry has been Romney’s most persistent attacker, but has failed so miserably in the debates that by the New Hampshire contest he had basically tapped out, content to cede Romney’s dominance. If Romney has been smooth and unflappable, he’s also sailed above the competition in a way that was impossible given the cast of characters in 2008.
The context helps Romney in other ways. On Monday, I saw him at an event at Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, a traditional stop for candidates in New Hampshire. It was a gorgeous autumn day at a picturesque spot next to railroad tracks and the Merrimack River. But it was also in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, and yet by my rough count there were 200 or more people there. In 2008, this would have been a big crowd for one of the Republican candidates right near the end of the primaries. People are fired up and ready to defeat President Obama, and they may not need a fiery or inspirational candidate — Romney is neither — to turn them out.
Later, at a small town-hall meeting in the town of Hopkinton, the Romney of 2012 was a clear contrast to the Romney of 2008. He spent as little time as possible on social issues. In response to every question touching on social or cultural issues, he answered in about two sentences as if to say, “Look, people, let’s not waste our time — the economy’s the thing.”
Romney can do that because the economy looms so much larger as an issue and he’s not running as the conservative insurgent against the establishment heir apparent — he himself is now the heir. This was evident on Tuesday when he gathered up Chris Christie’s endorsement before the debate. It’s very easy to look like you are a better candidate when you’re standing next to one of the party’s rising stars, who’s willing to shower you with fulsome praise and lambaste your opponent.
For all that, Romney is still Romney. I remember sitting amazed at a Romney town hall in New Hampshire in 2008 when he didn’t express any empathy for a girl who stood up and asked a question about stem cells against the backdrop of her cousin who had suffered a terrible injury. I thought of that event when, at the Hopkinton town hall, a college-age girl asked Romney why he would say that ideally, children should be raised by a man and woman — as he did when asked about gay marriage — when she was raised by her mother and grandmother. At least a warm, sympathetic word or two seemed in order, but Romney basically reverted to his standard answer on gay marriage.
In such circumstances it’s as if he doesn’t see persons, only disembodied data points to be slotted into his hard drive so he can download the appropriate response. I think he’s a little looser than he was four years ago. He shows more of a sense of humor. When a young boy asked him what he thought of abortion, Romney said, to laughs, that he didn’t expect that question from him. At the end of the event, he bantered with an older gentleman in a Red Sox hat. Romney took the cap to display to the audience, and the man then said, to uproarious laughter, that the team is “perfect evidence that you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them.”
In his introductory remarks, Romney talked of defeating Obama, and someone piped up, speaking of the country, “take it back!” Romney agreed, but in the spirit of an afterthought, as if he’d prefer not to think of it in such pungent terms. Although he was warmly received, you had the sense that there was a passion in the crowd that Romney wasn’t quite capturing and channeling. Afterwards, one attendee told me he thought that if Romney would just bring it a little stronger and say, “follow me,” he’d sweep away all competition.
But that’s not Romney. As a politician, he impresses, but he doesn’t inspire or connect. There’s a human element that was missing in 2008 and still is. Maybe he won’t need it. But it helps account for the tenuous attachment of voters to him that still makes him vulnerable, even as the talk of his inevitability builds.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.