Mitt Romney: a change agent who can get things done

Published April 15, 2007

In recent weeks, we have been trying to make the case for how each major 2008 presidential contender could win the White House. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. Last up, John McCain. Today, Republican Mitt Romney.

Polls show former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney way behind universally known frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Forget those surveys.

In today's volatile anti-Washington climate, you'd be nuts to discount a hugely successful private sector problem-solver who turned around countless troubled businesses and built up such successes as Staples, Brookstone and Domino's Pizza.

Here's an optimistic leader with movie star looks who took over the debt- and scandal-ridden 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and turned it into a big success. He's a Republican who managed to win blue state Massachusetts, erase a $3-billion deficit through fiscal discipline instead of tax increases, and think big and bold to provide health coverage to every resident.

Underdog? Sure. Underestimated? Only by those foolish enough not to be watching him.

"When you're running against candidates who are known to 100 percent of Republicans and only 20 percent to 25 percent of the people are supporting them, then you've got a great chance of taking it," said U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a Romney supporter.

It's no fluke that when the Los Angeles Times earlier this year polled members of the Republican National Committee, Romney emerged as the leading favorite among the party insiders. Or that Romney won the recent widely watched Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll in Washington, D.C. Or that he's closing the gap in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans and keeps winning local grass roots straw polls in South Carolina.

"He is the only candidate who can claim to be a true agent of change from either party," said Sally Bradshaw, Jeb Bush's top political adviser who is working with Romney. "Everybody would admit that it's a challenging atmosphere for Republicans this cycle. That's why Mitt Romney is the right choice."

In America's biggest swing state, Florida, Romney has won over many of the country's most sophisticated and important fundraisers, from former Ambassador Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg to north-central Florida developer Gary Morse. People gush about a candidate who blends Jeb Bush's bold, policy savvy and Charlie Crist's personal warmth.

"When you sit down one on one with him you clearly absorb that optimism, that demeanor. You never see him stern, you never see him not smile," said Mark Guzzetta, a south Florida developer and veteran top GOP fundraiser helping Romney. "This guy has proven himself time and time again that he can look at a problem and bring the necessary elements together to solve the problem."

Historically Republicans nominate their early frontrunner, and the 60-year-old Romney is still little known to most of the electorate. This presidential election, however, is shaping up as a thoroughly atypical primary.

Not only is the Republican primary beset by vast disenchantment with President Bush and congressional Republicans, but this the first time in more than half a century without a sitting president or vice president on the ballot. There's no clearly anointed Bush successor and the two early Republican frontrunners, McCain and Giuliani, face serious doubts about their conservative credentials.

Look at the campaign fundamentals, rather than those national polls, and you can see why Romney is such a threat to McCain and Giuliani:

- Money. Romney, the founder of private equity firm Bain Capital, has outraised all primary rivals so far, pulling in $23-million in the first quarter.

-Team. Some of the top Republican strategists and professionals are working for Romney, not only in the Boston headquarters but in the early primary states. In Florida, which may hold its primary in January, much of Jeb Bush's inner circle is with Romney.

- Organization. Day after day in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, the Romney campaign announces new endorsements. It's testament to the formidable ground operations the campaign has launched. In South Carolina, a new InsiderAdvantage poll shows the race tied among the frontrunners, as did the latest University of Iowa poll, and a Zogby poll in New Hampshire.

- The candidate. His profile and record of tackling tough problems are ideal for the anti-Washington environment. Once viewed as a moderate, Romney is vulnerable to attacks as a flip-flopper on social issues, but that can be overcome.

Presidential primaries are ultimately about comparative shopping. Romney stacks up increasingly well among Republicans to Giuliani, with his messy personal and private sector life and support for public financing of abortions, and McCain, who is loathed by a sizable chunk of the Republican base and has basically tied his fate to Iraq.

"Mitt Romney has brought to our party a new face at a time when there's some malaise inside the Beltway and when we've had some setbacks and are looking for new leadership," said former Florida Republican Chairman Al Cardenas.

There is the Mormon question. Some polls show many voters are reluctant to vote for a Mormon, like Romney. But those survey questions are asked in the abstract. Ask about a successful businessman and family man married 37 years, and that skepticism about his religion is sure to dissipate.

"The American people are going to look at the total person, his total background, total achievements," agreed former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has not ruled out jumping in the race himself. "Romney's record turning around the Winter Olympics which was spectacular, his record as a very successful business leader, his record as governor of a very, very Democratic state - he's an impressive guy."

Look at governors of small or mid-size states who have run for president in modern history, and Romney's position in national polls looks much less grim. Gallup polls had Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton farther behind early in their election cycles than Romney is.

The "Romney wins" scenario is simple. He continues gaining on frontrunners and the narrative builds about his momentum. Only McCain has comparable organizations in the early states, but the Arizona senator's campaign looks stalled.

So Romney locks up the nomination on Feb. 5, and then heads into the general election, where a lot of analysts see a difficult GOP year.

Democrats didn't win so big in 2006 because of their own message, they won because voters fired the GOP. But Romney is no status quo Republican, and But if Romney can win over Ted Kennedy's home state, why not America?

Keep your eye on Romney, the proven turnaround artist who may well be the GOP's best hope.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.