Romney's electable, but is he likeable?

January 17, 2012|By Jules Witcover

While Mitt Romney continues to depend on the notion that he is the Republican best equipped to beat President Barack Obama in November, another question of perception hovers over him. Do voters like the guy?

It's a question that clings to him as he struggles against his natural reserve and buttoned-down style, which no number of tie-less appearances can change and turn him into one of the boys. He reminds one of the old gag about the fastidious Spiro Agnew -- that his wife would roll him out each morning on a skateboard, with every hair in place.

The issue of personal appeal has come to the fore in the latest dust-up over Mr. Romney's witless remark about liking "to fire people," woefully taken out of context by many in the press and rival candidates. Obviously, he was talking about canning insurance companies that don't deliver what they promise.

Equally distracting for Mr. Romney are the scorched-earth tactics of Newt Gingrich, aided by Rick Perry's characterization of Mr. Romney's efforts at Bain Capital as "vulture capitalism." Together they are giving the Obama camp plenty of ammunition for the fall campaign, should Mr. Romney be the GOP nominee. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called on candidates to cool off such "anti-capitalism" rhetoric.

It is in this context that the former Massachusetts governor's touted "electability" runs into doubts about his "likeability." Criticisms continue to be heard of his inability to warm up crowds to himself, beyond reciting the party's yearnings to boot the Democratic president out of the Oval Office.

For all the public lamentations about the state of the economy and the snail's-pace recovery, Mr. Obama has managed to maintain fairly healthy polling numbers as a regular guy who parcels out personal empathy by the spoonful. Mr. Romney, for all he tries, hasn't been able to generate great enthusiasm to match his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mr. Romney is not the first major presidential candidate to cope with a likeability gap. In 1976, a similarly bland and even less colorful Democrat, Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, had a resume, stature and political experience that made him a strong candidate -- on paper. But on the stump and in person, he never generated real political sex appeal.

On one occasion, I asked one of Mr. Jackson's intimates why he thought this was so, and he told this story about a manufacturer of dog food, the sales of which were flat. Calling in his staff, he noted how the company used the very best ingredients, charged a competitive price, and even put a flashy new label on the can. As the staff listened, he asked around the table what the trouble was. Nobody volunteered, until one young man at the end of the table raised his hand and said: "Dogs don't like it."

Mr. Romney's situation may not be quite so dire. Few have been heard to say he is truly unlikeable. But in a campaign against an incumbent president who still demonstrates an ease in turning out big and boisterous crowds -- albeit with the White House machinery to help -- considerably more Mitt pizzazz would certainly help.

At the same time, likeability can be overrated. One of the most consistently disliked politicians over the years, even in his own party, was Richard Nixon. He was never able to shake the nickname of "Tricky Dick," earned in a career of conniving cemented well before the Watergate fiasco that brought him down. But he was elected to the presidency twice, and it took that gross evidence of his multiple deceptions to send him back into private life.

As Mr. Romney presses on in conservative South Carolina, his task remains to convince fellow Republicans there that in spite of his early moderation on social issues, he is now one of them. He may be facing his toughest sales job yet. Mr. Gingrich's charge that he is a "timid moderate" could find more resonance in the Palmetto State.

As for the former House speaker's single-minded effort to bring Mr. Romney down, Mr. Gingrich's recent smearing of the man as a liar and a jobs-killer just might make Mr. Romney more likeable, or at least supportable.

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

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