Romney's supporters argue that the electorate is frustrated with business-as-usual government: with incompetence ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the Christmas Day underwear bomber, with a seemingly leaderless legislature that has bickered over the same health-care bill for nearly a year without action, with secretive back-room deals, with scandal and waste and hackery at all levels. They want a competent manager to put the house in order — both to fight terrorism and to run domestic programs more efficiently.
"To me, that's Mitt Romney in many respects," says Ron Kaufman, Republican National Committee (RNC) member from Massachusetts and part of Romney's inner circle — who insists that Romney has made no decision about 2012, and is not currently thinking about it.
"This time around, he seems more inclined to be Mr. Fix-It, on the economy and everything else," says the Republican strategist. "That's what voters are looking for today — but what will they be looking for two years from now?"
Not their cup of tea?
Nobody knows what Republican primary voters will be thinking when they choose their standard-bearer in 2012. But today, even with all the economic troubles, they sure don't seem to be looking for someone like Romney.
That may help explain why, in a recent poll of "political insiders" by the influential Washington publication National Journal, Republican elites attuned to their party's dynamics were far more skeptical of Romney's chances than were the Democrats, who overwhelmingly expect Romney to be the GOP nominee.
In addition to the Christian conservatives, the GOP base is now overrun with populist conservatives, represented in the energetic Tea Party movement. Brown won, after all, by putting on a barn jacket and driving an old pickup truck. The favorites of the right — from Palin to Glenn Beck to Joe the Plumber — present themselves not as MBAs in suits and ties, but as plain folks guided only by common sense.
In the battle of Main Street versus Wall Street, there's no question which side Romney represents. Not only did he make a fortune buying companies, stripping them down, and selling them in the stock market; his political career has been financed by the very banking and financial executives whose heads the public is demanding on pikes.
His top source of contributions in his 2008 campaign, in fact, was none other than the villainous Goldman Sachs, whose employees and their spouses pitched in at least a quarter-million dollars. Hundreds of thousands also came in from brass at Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JP Morgan, and Lehman Brothers. "He represents that crowd," says Ray LaRaja, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "His best hope is that the populism subsides, but the economy still sucks."
Romney also has to overcome his support for the 2008 TARP bank bailout, which he continues to defend against movement-conservative howlings.
Truth is, so-called movement conservatives were never that smitten with him, anyway: much as he tried, Romney could never convince them he was an ideologue rather than a pragmatist at heart.
He doesn't exactly wow Club for Growth, the powerful organization that helped launch the Doug Hoffman phenomenon in New York. "He appealed to a lot of our members" in 2008, David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, tells the Phoenix. But the group did not back Romney then, and Keating does not make it sound likely that they will do so next time. Among other concerns, "he was for the health-care plan in Massachusetts, which [conservatives] thought was a pretty bone-headed idea."