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Misplaying the political game

By Jules Witcover

March 23, 2012

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Republican presidential politics in the era of multiple state primary and caucus elections is a two-step dance. Candidates first must waltz their way to the approval of the most conservative voters to nail down the nomination. Then the survivor must show a bit more leg in the general election with a broader appeal to gain the Oval Office.

The current frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has been following that script to a fare-thee-well. He ludicrously described himself as "severely" conservative, as if he had broken out in a rash. He did this because his earlier moderation as governor of Massachusetts, particularly in authoring the state's health care program, makes him suspect among the true believers on the party's right wing.

True believers are a growing and tenacious segment of the Republican base, with the development of the tea party movement and the fervor of the religious evangelicals. The old moderation in the GOP, into which the earlier Romney would have fit snugly, has all but vanished.

Nevertheless, there remain many moderates in the electorate beyond this ideologically rigid Republican base. Some are still in the party, but many more are among the Democrats and particularly among the independents, whose votes Mr. Romney will need in November if he's nominated.

It will be both prudent and natural, if he becomes the GOP standard-bearer at the party's national convention this summer, for him to attempt to widen his appeal to more moderate Americans. And he will have to do so in a way that doesn't sacrifice the conservative true believers he has been so busy bending himself out of shape to win over.

The struggle, unfortunately for him, has raised questions about his authenticity. He is still seen by many as a super-rich business whiz who claims to be a regular guy like you and me, only much smarter. As he inches toward the nomination, the impression clings among many voters.

For good or evil, imagery in politics often counts for as much as or more than reality. Mr. Romney's image problems are largely self-inflicted wounds, as he's apparently unable to realize the negative impression left by some of his words that unintentionally remind voters of the great wealth that separates him from the average Joe. Now, it seems, that the tin-ear virus has been caught by his chief political strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom.

To signal that after the convention Mr. Romney would offer a broader appeal, Mr. Ferhnstrom, who goes back to his boss' gubernatorial days, explained that "you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

Anyone with a small child can understand the reference to the kids' toy that can draw a sketch and then erase it for a fresh start. But after spending all year sketching himself as "severely" conservative, the suggestion that Mr. Romney would shake up his message and start sketching himself over again was a gift his opponents quickly exploited. Newt Gingrich called Etch-a-Sktech "a great toy but a losing strategy," and Rick Santorum tweaked Mr. Romney for the imagery of change from a candidate who has worked overtime emphasizing his fealty to conservatism.

Every nominee, obviously, must shift gears somewhat from an early appeal to the party base to a broader general election audience. But a smart candidate does so deftly, without handing the opposition a stick with which beat him while the nomination remains in some doubt.

Coming out of a decisive victory in Illinois, Mr. Romney had a good day Tuesday. But once again, a campaign gaffe intruded, casting him and his team as the gang that can't shoot straight. That's not exactly a confidence-builder to Republican voters looking for a nominee and a team strong and smart enough to beat President Barack Obama.

Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.