BEDFORD, New Hampshire -- It’s an odd political tableau. Mitt Romney is on the verge of achieving something unprecedented for a non-incumbent Republican candidate: twin victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And yet the last few days of the Granite State campaign have raised, rather than allayed, concerns about the GOP frontrunner.
Mind you, Romney’s organization has hummed flawlessly along. On the way into a Romney rally in Bedford Monday evening, there were several volunteers to take your name, another to offer you a sticker, a third to proffer a sign. And, later, more to wander through the crowd to sign you up to aid the effort.
But the last few days of the campaign found the Republican frontrunner on the defensive over the job-cutting side of Bain Capital -- and committing unforced errors with an ill-timed, if innocently intended, comment about liking to fire people, a ham-handed attempt to strike a common chord, and an agitated exchange with a protester. On Monday, the tightly controlled campaign canceled several TV interviews to stanch the bleeding from the self-inflicted wounds.
All in all, it was a problematic performance for a putatively polished candidate, an unwelcome reminder to Republican voters that even after years of campaigning, in the heat of battle, Romney can still be a stumble-prone candidate. To put it another way, the Mitt you see when politics is easy isn’t necessarily the Mitt you get when the pressure’s on.
Romney’s firing comment itself wasn’t related to his days at Bain Capital, but rather to the salubrious benefits that competition and choice bring to health-care consumers.
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” he said during a speech to the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need … I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.”
But talk of a clueless contender leaning forward into a left-right combination! Both his Democratic critics and his Republican rivals quickly pounced -- as he should have known they would.
That stumble came atop Romney’s Sunday comment that “I know what’s it’s like to worry whether you’re gonna get fired.”
Meant as an expression of economic empathy, it demonstrated exactly the opposite: Just how hard it is for the gently born Romney, who after an elite education quickly landed on capitalism’s escalator, to strike a common chord.
Then, in his last appearance on Monday, the frontrunner seemed rattled when Occupy protesters interrupted the Patriotic Parsing of Sentimental Songs that substitutes for a substantive stump speech.
“Hey, hey, how about if you talk? Instead of shouting, why don’t you say, why don’t you say what you believe?” he yelled. When a woman than made a comment about money in politics, an agitated Romney hurriedly blamed the entirety of the problem on President Obama.
As long-time Mitt-watchers can attest, all that is Romney being Romney. After almost two decades as a public figure, he still is prone to gaffes at inopportune times.
One thing that seems to have caught the campaign off-guard is the primary-season attack on his Bain record, and specifically, the jobs lost at companies the firm acquired. Romney has portrayed the offensive by Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry as an assault on capitalism itself, saying that “free enterprise will be on trial,” and that job loss “is just part of the process.”
Yet though most people understand that creative destruction is indeed part of capitalism, there is still something off-putting about leveraged buyouts that bring job losses for ordinary workers, but huge payouts for private-equity investors.
Romney’s rivals know that and thus are ready to press the case, even if it subjects them to charges of ideological apostasy. In particular, Gingrich, aggrieved at the tough treatment he has received from a Romney-allied Super PAC, has vowed to air a hard-hitting documentary about Bain -- and has spent the last couple of days as a human preview of that coming political attraction.
That’s a battle that will play out mostly in the post-New Hampshire campaign. But this is an issue with legs. Defusing it will require more from Romney’s camp than an assertion that an attack on Bain Capital constitutes an attack on everything fans of free enterprise hold dear. Like, say, a detailed and credible account of his overall jobs tally.
As for the other candidates, Rick Santorum has discovered that New Hampshire is simply not Iowa. His hard-right social views found fertile ground there, but it’s been tough sledding for the former Pennsylvania senator here in the unfrozen north.
That’s especially true with young people, for whom gay equality is a particularly important concern. They have repeatedly pressed Santorum about his views -- and haven’t been content with his answers.
An exchange at the Dublin School brought about one of the most uncomfortable, excess-of-information moments I’ve seen in a presidential campaign. Queried about contraception, Santorum explained that the Catholic Church taught that “we should not interfere with conception, we should not practice … artificial contraception,” and “that’s what I and my wife of 21 years abide by.” But as president, he said, he wouldn’t attempt to impose that belief on others by trying to ban birth control.
Santorum also employed some sophistry to fend off his young critics, insisting, illogically, that allowing two people of the same sex to marry would quickly transform marriage from a binary relationship into a multi-party matter. (Why?)
Suffice it to say that most Republicans I talked to were politely dismissive of Santorum, either noting that he was too far right or that his social concerns “aren’t my issues.”
If there’s one candidate who could have a Santorum-in-Iowa moment in New Hampshire, it’s Jon Huntsman. After long months focusing nearly exclusively on the state, he has caught a final-days breeze -- and found his voice. A Monday bakery stop-by (now, there’s a candidate who knows where to campaign!) drew a sizable crowd, and found young Huntsman supporters passionately entreating their Ron Paul counterparts to join the Huntsman quest.
Some late-deciding moderates I talked to there liked Huntsman’s foreign-policy credentials. Others were attracted by the same thing that has put off GOP partisans: His willingness to serve as US ambassador to China under a president of a different party. If Huntsman could overtake Paul to place second here, he would finally get his own moment in the Republican sun.
Finally, there’s the mystery of Newt Gingrich. I keep reading about how fiery and determined the former Speaker was in pressing his case against Romney. Perhaps, but the two times I saw him, he was so low key as to be almost lackadaisical, mentioning Romney not as his primary focus, but almost as an afterthought. Although Republicans I talked with generally like him, they also view him as so battle-scared as to be problematic as a nominee.
Still, Gingrich has this going for him. He talks substance in way you don’t hear from Romney, and voters like that. Further, he has a matter-of-fact way of cutting through the nonsense. One such moment came during Sunday’s “Meet the Press” debate. After Romney portrayed himself as a modern-day Cincinnatus reluctantly putting aside his plow to answer the call of country, Gingrich tossed a deft dart his way. “Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?,” he said, proceeding to note that Romney had first run for office in 1994 and has been running or positioning himself to run pretty much ever since.
If he really does mount a concerted attack on the job-loss side of Bain Capital’s ledger, Gingrich will be exploiting an issue that helped torpedo Romney’s 1994 Senate campaign -- an issue Romney still hasn’t demonstrated that knows how to defuse.
For that reason alone, Gingrich remains an X factor in this campaign. And that’s why, even if Romney does score his second victory today, this campaign is not yet over. The climactic moment has yet to come.