TAMPA, Fla. — An axiom of American politics holds that, in choosing their presidential nominees, Democratic voters are prone to “fall in love” with the nominee, while less emotional Republicans generally “fall in line.”
Think about it. Democrats are vulnerable to long-shot, first-time candidates (George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama), while Republican voters prefer the nominee who leads in the polls and has secured the endorsements of party leaders, and for whom this is not his first presidential campaign (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain).
In 2012, according to nearly all recent public polls, Republican voters have overwhelmingly “fallen in line” behind the de facto GOP nominee, Mitt Romney. But a reasonable conclusion — after listening to 12 Florida voters who are either registered Republicans or who generally vote for Republicans in a fascinating two-hour focus group led by respected pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania — is that these voters neither know nor like Romney. They would like to like him. But a little over six months before Election Day, these Floridians are unsure who their standard-bearer is or what he would do as president.
By the “would you want to have a beer with him?” test — which, it is fair to say, Republican George W. Bush won in both 2000 and 2004 over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry — Romney, separate from his religious prohibition against drinking, flunks. His formal manner and personal wealth make him a remote figure.
To Republican Ron Romonchuk, 66, a retired consultant, Romney is a “1 percenter” who “never did things regular guys do.” Julie Saunders, 56, a paralegal and Romney supporter, finds the candidate “stiff,” with a “deer in the headlights” look. Frank Stagliano, 68, a retired headhunter who voted for George W. Bush twice but now supports Obama, found Romney’s sports talk unpersuasive: “A regular guy talks about (football quarterback) Peyton Manning and the team. Mitt talks about the team owners.”
But haunting Romney now is his successful primary campaign strategy, which consisted of making the negative case, serially, on why Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum should not be president — but failing to make a positive case for why he, himself, should be president.
When asked by Hart what advice he would offer to Romney, Jonathan Rosa, 27, a deputy police officer (who had voted for Romney in the Florida primary but now regrets not having voted for Santorum), said, “Stop outlining what other administrations have done wrong, and tell us what you’re going to do right.”
Romney’s perceived evasiveness on controversial issues remains a problem with these Florida Republicans. Brent Bennett put it succinctly: “He rounds the edges.” After prompting from Hart, Bennett summed up his feelings: “We want someone like Santorum, like Gingrich when he was at his best in debates, to have a position, to stick with the position and not apologize for that position, and not shade your answer to a question that matches what the particular audience you’re in front of might want to hear.”
Hart asked the other 11 their reaction to that statement. Every one of them agreed with it. Theresa Crudule, 30, tech vendor and committed conservative, contributed, “I don’t know if I can trust him to follow the Constitution.”
These voters overwhelmingly admire Romney as a devoted and faithful family man who has been exceptionally successful in business (although a few who are backing him expressed reservations, even suspicion, of how Romney’s Mormon faith might influence his presidential decision-making). Even though most of the group are disenchanted or contemptuous of Obama’s policies, more of them still saw Obama as “a regular guy” than Romney.
After Tampa, Romney’s task is clear: Without mentioning Obama, tell voters who you really are, what you really believe and what you really would do if you are elected president — and no “rounding the edges.”
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.