Mitt Romney has had the look and feel of the next GOP presidential nominee. His crowds are enthusiastic. His supporters see him as electable.
Sure, colleagues are roughing him up. But that comes with being the front-runner.
The fact that he has remained the top dog is a good breakthrough for Republicans. Romney represents the GOP's business wing, which has long been the party's backbone. Since the Moral Majority began its rise, social conservatives have tried to elevate opposition to abortion and gay rights and other cultural issues to the importance of traditional economic issues. Romney does not come from the ranks of the social conservative movement, so his front-runner status suggests that the mainstream of the GOP is still more interested in economic and business issues than divisive cultural ones.
At a forum Saturday morning in Derry, a southern New Hampshire town near where Robert Frost once owned a farm, Romney certainly spoke about economic issues more than social ones. And he did so in a way that could resonate later with general election voters who are frustrated with the economy.
Even if his record as a partner at Bain Capital was not perfect, he speaks with an authority about entrepreneurialism that Barack Obama lacks. Forget the nonsense that Rick Perry said Sunday about the president being a socialist. He is not.
But neither does he have much in his background as a politician, law professor and community activist that naturally connects to the strong entrepreneurial streak in American culture. Hence, the comments that have been reported about businesses feeling under attack from the administration. If nominated, Romney would be able to connect with entrepreneurs and innovators in a way that Obama does not.
But Romney faces a serious problem, and it is one that dogged Al Gore. Voters do not connect with him.
In interviews with voters at rallies for Romney and other candidates, New Hampshire residents cited his business background, his economic views and his potential to win in November. But they rarely mentioned Romney as a person. The closest they came was when some voters talked about his moral integrity and intellect.
The pattern reminded me of what I came across while interviewing voters outside of Michigan State's football stadium near the end of the 2000 presidential campaign. Invariably voters backing George W. Bush mentioned that one of the reasons for their support was that they liked him. Rarely did Gore supporters say they liked him. They instead talked about what he represented and would do as president.
Of course, a vote is a vote, so Romney will be glad to get them for just about any reason. But a candidate — and a president — needs to inspire people to get in the trenches with him. At this point, the businessman lacks that quality. His knack for talking about jobs and the economy will help him and his party, but the lack of an inspirational streak will be his biggest hurdle as he goes forward.
William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News.
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