Davenport, Iowa—As a crowd of more than 100 waits patiently for Mitt Romney's late arrival, the sound system blares country singer Alan Jackson: "You must be the dream I've been dreamin' of/Oh, what a feelin', it must be love." That selection suggests it's Romney who is dreaming.
He's been running for president off and on since 2007, but he has yet to persuade most Republicans that he's their fondest desire. Last time around, he campaigned extensively in Iowa, only to lose in the caucuses to Mike Huckabee. This time, Romney is campaigning sparingly here, apparently to minimize any damage if he loses again.
Losing looks like a serious possibility. In the latest We Ask America poll of likely Republican caucus-goers, Romney was running third with just 15 percent, behind Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. Yes, Newt Gingrich, who at last report didn't even have a campaign office in Iowa.
Romney probably doesn't aspire to be loved by Iowa Republicans. He'd settle for being liked.
This evening, he's making a rare campaign appearance in the state, with an apparent dual purpose: to demonstrate his compatibility with GOP conservatives, while advertising his acceptability to independents he will need if he wins the nomination. Unlike most candidates, he doesn't take questions from the audience—making sure no one raises unwanted issues that might garble his message.
It's an understandable strategy, but it gives him the look of a football team trying to run out the clock even though it's losing. In trying to be all things to all people, Romney risks sounding like nothing much to anyone.
Tonight, he's at the site of a company called Iowa American Water, speaking in an auditorium-sized garage filled with white pickup trucks. Behind him is a banner with his slogan, "Believe in America," which like his speech has more sentiment than content.
Romney repeatedly strums the patriotism chord, reminiscing about long childhood driving vacations, going from national park to national park. "My mom and dad took me around to fall in love with America, and I did," he says. "I love this country. I love what we stand for."
He is more subtle than many conservatives in casting doubt on Barack Obama's patriotism. "He thinks the Europeans are great," Romney says in a tone of bewilderment. The president and his allies, he insists, "don't understand how America works."
It's hard to believe the flag-waving will be much help to Romney after proving ineffectual for John Kerry and John McCain—despite their distinguished military service. Besides, among the GOP contenders, clinging to Old Glory and scorning the French don't exactly make you stand out.
Romney does indulge conservatives by discussing his plans to cut the federal budget by $500 billion a year in his first term. What he omits is that those cuts wouldn't come close to balancing the budget.
He says he'll kill Obama's health care overhaul. He mentions a few other items he would trim, most of them notable for requiring no discernible sacrifice by anyone within earshot—reducing federal employment and federal pay, going after subsidies to the arts, turning Medicaid over to the states, revamping defense procurement.
Here, the candidate tries to allay fears on the part of people outside the GOP tent, who might get the wrong impression from his budget cuts. "I like, for instance, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, I like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," Romney confides. "I don't want them to go away, but I don't want to borrow a billion dollars from China to pay for them."
Anyone listening might infer that he wants to end funding for these programs. In fact, his budget blueprint would only "reduce subsidies" by $600 million—about half of their current spending. "I only want to borrow half a billion dollars from China to pay for them," however, would not be a great applause line.
Looking ahead a year, Romney outlines two possible scenarios for Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012—when morning TV anchors may report that Obama has been re-elected ("No!" voices exclaim in horror). Or we could wake up, he says, to be told, "Mitt Is It."
Could be. Maybe by then, voters will have figured out what Mitt is.
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