TAMPA — Mitt Romney has accomplished something remarkable: After six years of running for president, millions spent on TV ads and copious debates, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee remains a stranger even to his supporters.
I watched a fascinating focus group of 12 thoughtful Tampa Bay Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters Tuesday night and saw the phenomenon first hand.
All but two are likely to vote for the former Massachusetts governor, and the vast majority had positive things to say about him. But they want to like him, to be excited about him. And — even after a marathon primary campaign — to learn who he is and what he intends to do as president.
Romney's making it hard.
"I would like to see what his true personality is," said Julie Saunders, a paralegal in Tampa. "I'm hoping he's cool."
"I would love to find out what the man really stands for. Without knowing that, because he doesn't take a stand on anything firmly, I can't vote for him," said Frank Stagliano, a retired head hunter from Palm Harbor.
"I just haven't seen the regular guy side of him," said 27-year-old Jonathan Rosa, a law enforcement officer from Ruskin. "George Bush might not seem like the best president in the world, but he felt like somebody you could just walk down the street and joke around with. I don't feel that way with Mitt."
New polls by the New York Times, CBS and the Pew Research Center show a tight race between Romney and Barack Obama, with Republicans starting to unite behind the former governor after a tough, protracted primary. But the focus group of voters in the battleground region hosting the GOP convention in 130 days underscored another finding in those polls: Many Republicans remain unenthusiastic about their likely nominee, who still has work to do today with his base.
"You've got a lot to answer to make them solidly behind you," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who led the two-hour focus group for the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center. "If you think you can now move to the middle or start looking at the general election, think again. And the reason you need to think again is that these people have fundamental questions. Now if you deal with your fundamental questions, you'll not only help yourself with the base you'll help yourself with the middle."
The big one for Romney is: Who are you and what do you believe in?
"He rounds the edges so that everybody there will like him," lamented Brent Bennett, a 39-year-old Tampa resident and computer programmer. "What we want is someone like (Rick) Santorum and like (Newt) Gingrich when he was at his best in the debates — to have a position, to stick to the position and not apologize for that position and not shade your answer to a question that matches what you think this particular audience that you're in front of might want to hear."
Hart asked how many people agreed with that. Every hand went up.
Romney has spent months telling voters why they should not vote for Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Obama. These voters want a clearer sense of why they should vote for him.
"There's no sense he is somebody who's real, who they can touch," Hart said. "Cellophane man. . . . He has been out, he has campaigned, they have followed it, they have seen it, and they're left with no feeling."
It's not that these voters are especially hostile to Romney. Most are both hopeful and frustrated. Several have qualms about his Mormon faith.
Over and over, they cited his background as a successful businessman. That would make him strong dealing with foreign policy and negotiating with Congress and grappling with the economy, several said.
What kind of boss would he be? Highly demanding, professional, you could learn a lot from him came the rapid-fire responses.
"He knows what makes businesses successful," said Ben Drawdy a 33-year-old Lutz resident in sales, who voted for Obama four years ago and won't do it a second time. "America is one of the biggest businesses in the world. He'll just use his experiences to figure out where we're weak at and where he can put his plan in."
Still, Romney's wishy-washy image produced some doubts about how he would lead.
"I want to believe that he would be good, but I have some reservations," said 30-year-old Theresa Crudele of St. Petersburg, when asked how Romney would have handled a decision like going in after Osama bin Laden. Sometimes he's so reserved that maybe he wouldn't be strong in saying, 'Yes this is what we need to do. Go do it.' "
Romney has more than 200 days to ease the angst of voters like these. If he fails, the most critical factor for November may be whether antagonism toward Obama can give Republicans the motivation that their nominee can't.
The vast majority of the focus group participants strongly criticized Obama's policies and record but seemed to like him as a human being.
"It's the lesser of two evils," said Plant City clerk Debra Galloway, explaining why she'll definitely vote for Romney after voting for Obama four years ago. "I'm glad we have a black president. I was very hopeful, but now it's like, 'Get him out, he's killing us.' "
Looking at their likely nominee and the charisma of the president, the group was fairly pessimistic about Romney's chances. Only six predicted Romney would win, though only two planned to vote for Obama.
"Obama I think has done major, major steps in ruining this country or continuing the ruination of it,'' said Ron Romonchuk, a retired consultant from Largo. "But I'm just not sure Romney has what it takes to win and to take it back up."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]