Can Mitt Romney Strong-Arm Republican Voters Into Supporting Him?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 14 2012 8:37 PM

Stop, Right Now! You’re Making a Scene!

Romney’s camp warns Republicans that Rick and Newt are making the GOP look bad. It’s a tactical message—and hardly inspiring.   

Mitt Romney campaigns.
Mitt Romney

Photograph by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images.

The Mitt Romney campaign would like Republican voters to stop and think like Mitt Romney for a moment: rationally and without getting overly emotional about things. Have voters seriously contemplated the chaos that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are promising at the Republican convention in Tampa? These two upstarts are planning a messy delegate fight, full of anger and recriminations, under the bright lights of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and in primetime. The GOP convention is supposed to be four days of purposeful choreography highlighting the array of Republican wonders and Barack Obama’s many shortcomings. What people will see instead is a food fight. Stop it now, before it’s too late!

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Perhaps things will get exciting, say Romney’s rivals, but if the GOP nominates Mitt Romney, that smooth, seamless Tampa convention will be a nighttime sleep aid. Only by nominating a candidate of conviction and passion will Republicans rise to beat Obama in November.

Whether a contested convention will be a horror show or the beginning of a unified march on Obama is now a part of the daily face-off between Romney and the remaining Republican candidates. It is a debate in which the arguments match the candidates. Mitt Romney stands for order and careful planning to avoid the threat of wrinkled jeans or blemishes. Santorum and Gingrich are all snort and shove, spoiling for a fight.

Modern-day conventions are centerpiece moments for parties to communicate with Americans. To present a diverse looking crowd to the television cameras, delegates are selected from as broad a palette as possible. Prime-time speakers are picked to send a unified and appealing message to swing voters. If there is a brawl, all of this is threatened. "If the Republican convention is a mish mash of conspiracy theories and backroom dealings and competition back and forth, and we wake up the morning after we've nominated a candidate and then have to start the campaign against Obama, we're going to start out in a deep, deep hole," said  Romney backer and former Congressman Vin Weber in an interview I did with him for CBS’s Face to Face.

Romney’s campaign is trying to scare Republicans straight. Think about 1976, they say, the last time Republicans had a contested convention. It was dramatic when Ford muscled out Ronald Reagan, but in the end, the Republicans lost to Jimmy Carter. This time, a Republican Thunderdome convention will leave the party smoldering and with only eight weeks to repair the damage and present a unified argument for replacing Barack Obama.

The Santorum campaign says that Romney is emphasizing his delegate count to hide the unpleasant fact that Santorum is winning and attracting excitement. “It feels like Charlie Sheen, who, when he was being fired, kept talking about winning,” says John Brabender, Rick Santorum’s top strategist. “What I would suggest is that Mitt Romney grow up and concentrate on winning the nomination, not trying to stop the process. It’s starting to embarrass the party.”

You’re embarrassing the party! No, you’re embarrassing the party!

Santorum isn’t even running a real campaign, Romney’s allies insist. He’s just a man with a suitcase. (He can’t even afford sleeves for his sweaters!) “This election is going to be about competence and the ability to do the job rather than hire an entertainer or whatever,” said New York Jets owner Woody Johnson at a Romney fundraiser Wednesday. Webber said something similar: “He’s a candidate running from state to state trying to make this emotional appeal, and it's working with some people. It certainly will not beat President Obama in the fall."

Those remarks echo Romney’s claim before the Michigan primary that suggested Santorum was winning votes by pandering to the rabble: “It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments. We’ve seen throughout the campaign if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusative, attacking of President Obama, that you’re going to jump up in the polls. I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support.”

The message is tactical—and not terribly inspiring. It says nothing about the promise of the future or how Romney will put the country back on track. It doesn’t matter, says one member of the Romney camp. The governor is already inspiring voters on the key issue of the day: the economy. He consistently is the choice of the plurality who say that issue is the most important. He also destroys the competition when it comes to who people think can defeat Obama. These are the issues that matter in the end, and he is making headway with them. Talking about the reality of delegate math does not obliterate Romney’s other positive qualities.

But it does something else: the argument coming out of the Romney camp reinforces Santorum’s claim that he is the guy with the grit and determination upsetting those who are obsessed with doing things the orderly and usual way. “We are breaking all the rules,” Santorum said last week. “And folks who like to play by the establishment rules, they just feel really nervous about us.” That’s one thing both sides agree on: The establishment is nervous. What’s not clear is whether the jitters are coming from losing power in the party or losing a shot at winning the White House.