By Romano, Andrew
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 14
Byline: Andrew Romano
Perry's stumbling, the economy's crumbling, Obama's in freefall. All this could make it Mitt Romney's moment. But--
What is Mitt Romney? It is very hard to tell. Put him on a debate stage, and he can outshine the klieg lights. Last Thursday in Orlando, for instance, the former Massachusetts governor delivered his most dexterous performance of the year, connecting on nearly every thrust and pulling off nearly every parry, in a two-hour duel with his increasingly clumsy rival, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. When Perry tried to obscure his support for a defederalized Social Security system, Romney suggested that he "find that [other] Rick Perry and get him to stop saying" the opposite. When Perry accused Romney of praising President Obama's education policies and, later, of flip-flopping on health care, Romney snapped "nice try" before dismantling Perry's allegations. And Mitt even mustered a joke. "I only spent four years as a governor," he said, contrasting his business career with Perry's quarter century in politics. "I didn't inhale." By the end of the debate, Perry could barely conjure up a coherent sentence.
Orlando was a reminder that Romney, who lost his lead in the polls as soon as Perry entered the race, is a more capable politician than pundits tend to acknowledge. He graduated from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School at the same time. He ran Bain & Co., a topnotch consulting firm, and founded Bain Capital, its prestigious private-equity spinoff. He saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He was, by most accounts, a successful governor in Massachusetts, shepherding an intelligent health-care-reform package with clear conservative roots through a deeply liberal legislature. And compared with Perry, who criticized him during the debate for favoring "the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe versus Wade before he was against, verse, Roe versus Wade," the man is practically Cicero on the stump.
And yet, away from the stage, and the lights, and the shrink-wrapped soundbites, where real human beings aren't kept at a respectful distance, and resumes and factoids matter less, Romney isn't quite as luminous. Consider his visit, in August, to the Iowa State Fair. As Romney arrived at the Varied Industries Building, an aide emerged from the crowd with lunch: a pork chop on a stick. The boss took a bite, and then, still chewing, struck up a conversation with the nearest retiree, if "conversation" is the right word for what Romney does with voters, which usually involves repeating whatever they say to him immediately after they say it.
"That's the best thing at the fair," the retiree said, pointing to the pork.
"Is that the best thing at the fair?" Romney replied. He pivoted to the retiree's granddaughter. "What are you, about 7?"
"Eight," she said.
"Eight," Romney confirmed. He swiveled back to the retiree. "You in the ag world?"
"The insurance business," the retiree said.
"Insurance business," Romney responded. He seemed determined to reveal nothing--except for how little he was willing, or able, to reveal. The retiree went on to mention that he "lived on Clear Lake," up near the Minnesota border, "for years."
"Beautiful area," Romney said. "I love water." He took another bite of his pork chop.
"Well, we better let you go," the retiree finally said, glancing at the cameras. "We're getting more airtime than you are."
Mitt Romney is missing something. On paper, and onstage, he is almost flawless. But elections aren't decided by algorithms or debate audiences; they're decided on the trail. And the bottom line is that Romney is not very good at winning votes. In fact, over the course of his 17-year political career, he has notched only one electoral victory: the 2002 contest that made him governor. Most of the time--in 18 of his 23 primaries and elections, to be exact--Romney loses. …