How is Romney going to fix his persuasion problem? First, he's going to have to ignore a lot of the advice he's going to get. There's nothing worse than being the candidate everyone is competing to diagnose. There are enough days between now and the next contests on Feb. 28 in Michigan and Arizona that pundits and GOP strategists are going to get a few laps around the patient's bed. The competition to offer fresh cures for the troubles with Romney's candidacy is going to lead people to suggest everything from leeches to dietary changes. Romney's first task will be to resist changing too much: that will only invite more charges of inauthenticity.
Still, there is some evidence in Romney's recent past that suggests he can solve this problem. He knows how to connect with voters not when he speaks to them but when he becomes an advocate for them. When he says, "I love this country, I hope I made that clear. I didn’t say that as directly as I’d like to: I love America," he is not going to ride that assertion into anyone's heart. It sounds like George H.W. Bush's famous "Message: I care." But in Haleaja, Fla. recently, Romney fired up the crowd in the same way Gingrich and Santorum do. Protesters tried to interrupt his speech. Romney shouted to be heard over them. "We will stand for freedom. We will stand for opportunity," he yelled, pointing his finger at the protesters and hollering. "You can speak as long as you want to. We will not be shouted down by those who would try to change America. We will stand for the America we love." The crowd, which had tried to out-shout the protesters, went nuts when Romney led their charge.
Another example came during the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries when Romney was under fire for his career at Bain and for not releasing his tax returns. For days he gave unsatisfying answers to questions about each. He mumbled. He complained that Newt Gingrich was attacking him the way the Democrats would. It sounded like whining. Finally in Florida Romney found his voice, repeatedly hammering Gingrich for trying to punish him for being successful. The distinction was that he went from being defensive to fighting for a GOP principle. When voters repeated that answer back to me in the following days, what they liked was hearing an idea they already believe in, forcefully put.
The distinction for candidates is sometimes simply the difference between saying you hold a position and letting people hear your reasoning for it. When Al Cardenas introduced Romney to the CPAC crowds last Friday, he read from Romney's press release as governor opposing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It was an argument about changing the nature of marriage and it was more effective than Romney's assertion minutes later that he had fought same-sex marriage as governor. What Romney said as a presidential candidate wouldn't stick in anyone's mind. What Cardenas said he’d said as governor would.
It is a safe assertion that Mitt Romney is never going to out-perform Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich as the embodiment of conservative passion. He doesn't have to. He simply needs to show that he has access to some of that passion, so that voters can focus on his other good qualities like his leadership experience and his lack of Washington ties. Two qualities that he can simply assert.