Charlie Cook became the latest prognosticator to acknowledge what I have been telling you for some time: that Mitt Romney is an exceedingly weak Republican frontrunner. Noting Romney’s declining support among independents, Cook concludes his assessment of the Republican race this way: “My assumption was that Romney would be the nominee and would make a good run. Now, I have begun to doubt both propositions. His odds of winning the nomination are growing longer. And even if he does, he has twisted and turned himself into a human pretzel. I’m not sure how electable he is. The alternatives, however, seem even less so.”
Events these past few days drive home Cook’s point. During Wednesday’s Arizona debate, we saw all the reasons why Romney must be considered the Republican frontrunner. Judging by the applause, the audience seemed dominated by pro-Romney supporters – a likely sign of Romney’s superior organization as well as a strong Mormon turnout. During the debate Romney proceeded to use his superior opposition research to focus attention on Santorum’s Senate voting record – a strategy that kept the Rickster on the defensive most of the night as he tried to defend some of his votes that he acknowledged were either mistakes or against his principles. The more time Santorum delved into the Senate weeds by, for example, debating the merits of earmarks and Title X, the less he was able to attack Romney. In the end, this was not a good performance for Rick, something borne out by the first two post-debate polls in Michigan which both show Romney edging ahead of Santorum by margins of 3% and 6%.
But while Romney was effective on Wednesday in driving down Santorum’s poll numbers, much as he did with Gingrich during the pre-Florida debates – it’s not clear to me that the debate strengthened Romney’s own case to be the nominee. Although he effectively put Rick on the defensive, he also came across again as the rich boy used to getting his way, as when defending his right not to answer CNN moderator John King’s final question regarding misconceptions about each candidate. It was the same blustering response we’ve seen from Romney in previous debates and it reinforce the impression that he’s not very likeable.
Today, in what was billed as a major economic speech at Ford Field in Michigan, Romney tried to build on any momentum he may have gained coming out of the CNN debate. Leading up to the speech, however, critics seemed more concerned with the Romney camp’s tactics for downplaying the fact that he was going to speak to an audience of about 1,000 in a stadium that seats about 65,000 people. (The speech, hosted by the Detroit Economic Club, was moved to Ford Field after sponsors concluded that the sold out event was too large for the hotel conference room it had been slated for.) With the Michigan primary just four days away, Romney used the speech to flesh out his economic plan for cutting government spending and taxes, and for protecting entitlement programs. Most notably, he proposed an overhaul of the U.S. tax system to create a “flatter, fairer, simpler tax system,” cutting all tax rates by 20% and limiting deductions for the wealthy.
Once again, however, the often politically tone deaf Romney likely stepped on his own lead. This time it came during an effort to show his personal support for the automotive industry. Near the end of the speech, after noting that he has owned several Detroit-built automobiles, including a Mustang [a Ford product] and a Chevy, Mitt – always seeking ways to demonstrate the common touch – let this slip out: “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually” before he completed the Big Three automotive trifecta by noting he also once owned a Dodge pickup.
Two Cadillacs? Really? One isn’t enough? I don’t want to overstate the significance of this throwaway comment. Indeed, it’s not clear to me how much airplay, if any, it will get. But I do think it is but the latest in a series of remarks by Mitt that collectively reinforce the point that he lacks that Reagan-like ability to empathize with Joe and Jane Sixpack. And that failure shows in his campaign support; exit polls from the nominating contests consistently show that his support falls in linear fashion as one moves down the income ladder.
Let’s be clear. Mitt may yet pull out a victory in Michigan, to go along with a win that same day in Arizona. But if he barely squeaks by Santorum in Mitt’s “home” state, this is not going to provide much boost, if any, heading into Super Tuesday on March 6. And it may lead others to the same conclusion Cook voiced yesterday: that Mitt can’t close the deal with many Republican voters.
Mitt may own two Cadillacs, but it won’t do him much good if his campaign ends up at the Cadillac Ranch.
7:55 p.m. UPDATE: Well, it didn’t take long. The Hill, in its coverage of the Romney speech, reacts to the Cadillac comment this way: “But his claim might hurt him by reinforcing the image, being pushed by Democrats, of Romney as elitist and out of touch with average Americans. ” You think? Politico, meanwhile, headlines its coverage of the Romney speech as follows: “Mitt Romney’s Cadillac Flub One of Many”. And the wags were out in force in the Twitterverse regarding Mitt’s automobiles.
He can’t help himself.