MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, Ohio – To listen to Mitt Romney these days is to wish at times that someone would give him back his PowerPoint.
Romney, after all, made a fortune on his ability to make a crisp presentation and close a deal. As a governor pushing for a landmark approach to health care coverage in Massachusetts, he won over doubters by putting together a slide presentation and taking it all over the state.
So why is he having so much trouble making the sale with Republican voters?
Many of his allies and supporters are increasingly worried that the problem is Romney himself. Until now, Romney and his well-financed allies have been able to dispatch any opponent who presents a threat by drowning the potential usurper with negative advertising.
But the fact that a new one emerges each time he vanquishes another betrays the existence of a deeper discontent with Romney himself.
To be elected president, you have to do more than tear down your opponents, said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former Romney supporter who on Friday defected to the camp of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the latest to emerge as an alternative to Romney.
As Romney has adjusted tactically to a primary battle that is turning out to be tougher than he bargained for, some of his backers now say they fear that Romney is reinforcing the doubts that voters have about him.
Businessman Peter Thomas, for instance, showed up at a Romney appearance near Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday but admitted he is leaning toward Santorum.
He’s more blue collar, his story, Thomas said of Santorum. He’s a straight shooter. He says what he means. He won’t drift in the wind.
Repairing a candidate’s message can be as mystical an art as fixing a golfer’s swing. Especially in Romney’s case, where there are many diagnoses of what is wrong.
One fundraiser, who did not want to be identified, said Romney’s difficulty is connecting with people. Another said it is inconsistency. Still another, incoherence.
Anytime a poll comes out and shows you behind somewhere that people think is important, some of your supporters go, Oh my gosh, you’d better change something,’ said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist and Romney supporter. But from what I see and hear, I would not recommend any changes to what he’s doing.
Before business-oriented audiences, Romney seems focused and at ease, a man talking a language his listeners understand.
But when he takes the stage at large rallies without a teleprompter, Romney veers from bromides about America’s greatness (I love America. I love its beauty.) to odd facts about his upbringing (My dad was a lathe and plaster carpenter. He could take a handful of nails, stick them in his mouth and spit the nails out pointy end forward.) to broad indictments of Obama (The president is slowly but surely turning us into a European-style welfare state.)
Romney’s word choices – such as his recent declaration that he had been a severely conservative governor – can grate on the very people he is trying to win over. To hear him, it would seem that there is no problem in Washington that would not be solved by firing the chief executive.
Nor does he suggest that fiscal discipline involves much in the way of pain.
Romney promises to bring federal spending down to 20 percent of GDP from the current 24 percent, by eliminating every federal program that isn’t necessary. But the cuts he mentions are the relatively small savings that would be obtained by ending federal subsidies to Amtrak, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Those who are eager to see Romney improve and sharpen his message will be watching closely Friday, when he speaks before the Detroit Economic Club, just four days before the Michigan primary. Interest in the speech is so great that the club has moved it from a hotel ballroom to Ford Field, home to the Lions – a team that hasn’t won a championship since 1957.