Having endured two last-weekend debate assaults on his self-styled citizen candidacy, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks to today's Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire to bolster his front-runner status. But win or lose, he is likely not to have completed selling himself to the party faithful on that basis.
The sparring he encountered with the five other candidates in Saturday night's ABC News debate, and the harder hammering of Sunday morning's NBC News encounter, focused tellingly on Mr. Romney's insistence that he is foremost a businessman, not a politician. It's a prime rationale in peddling himself as the most electable Republican opponent to President Obama in the fall.
On Sunday's extended version of "Meet the Press" particularly, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pounced on Mr. Romney's claim. They pointedly argued that the reasons he got out of politics were that, in 1994, he lost his challenge to Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat, and in 2006 he could not have been re-elected governor.
Mr. Romney insisted that "politics is not for me" and that "my career was being in business ... and making it successful." He deplored those who (like Mr. Gingrich) "spend 20 or 30 years in Washington, and after they make money as lobbyists (denied by Mr. Gingrich) ... continue into business."
"I think it stinks," Mr. Romney said. Citizens should serve in Washington "and go home." He added that he favors term limits in Washington.
Mr. Gingrich, the self-designated Romney-wrecker in the race, climbed down off his earlier high horse as an apostle of positive campaigning. He piously called on Mr. Romney to "drop a little bit of the pious baloney." He argued that the frontrunner was running for president while he was governor and was still doing so in 2007-08 against eventual nominee John McCain.
The former speaker ridiculed "this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind," and called on Mr. Romney to "just level with the American people -- you have been running for at least since the 1990s."
Mr. Santorum also derided Mr. Romney's pose as a part-time politician by jumping on his stated rationale for not running for re-election as governor in Massachusetts after his first term -- that he had accomplished all he had set out to do. Mr. Romney blithely replied that to have sought re-election "would have been about me," apparently saying that doing so would have been no more than personal self-interest.
Well, Mr. Santorum taunted, "Are you going to tell people you're not going to run for reelection for president if you win?"
Mr. Romney replied: "(I)f I'm elected, of course I'll fight for a second term."
The most generous thing that could be said for that seeming contradiction was that Mr. Romney was conceding that the presidency was a challenging job that no president could fulfill in a single term. It's a point that Mr. Obama himself has been making in his bid for a second term, having mused earlier about his chances of winning re-election unless he could turn the economy around in one term.
Hammered over his insistence that he is not a politician, Mr. Romney also made a remark that seemed to reinforce both his elite family background and an apparent attitude that only financially privileged candidates ought to seek public office. He cited his father, George, a Michigan governor who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1968, who told him: "Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have win election to pay a mortgage." The counsel could be taken as endorsement of the notion that only the well-heeled should run.
In all this discussion about Mr. Romney the citizen-candidate, he also insisted that he challenged Kennedy in 1994 knowing he couldn't win, telling his partners in his firm, "I'll be back in six months. Don't take my chair." The comment may have reinforced his insistence that he wasn't acting as a politician -- but, if true, it raises a question about his wisdom and judgment.
Survivors of today's New Hampshire primary will be wise to press Mr. Romney's claim to be a citizen-candidate and not a politician in the approaching South Carolina primary and beyond -- if there is to be a beyond for them.
Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.