WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney has a lovely corner office at his Boston campaign headquarters.
Two walls of tall windows give him a view of the inner reaches of Boston Harbor, Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown and the "Old Ironsides" battleship. A large desk is positioned so that he can survey the soothing and inspiring vista should he ever have a few moments off the campaign trail.
But he rarely uses the office -- which makes the handsome but empty space a perfect metaphor for the grave risk that Romney now faces in this early but crucial phase of his general election race against President Barack Obama and the Obama machine.
Most of the American people don't know who Mitt Romney really is. They don’t know what is good and decent about his life story, his family, his work, his philosophy or his personal ethics. They don't know the bad news either. They don't know much of anything except a few caricatured, cartoonish facts.
The former governor of Massachusetts remains largely an empty canvas, onto which the Obama campaign, the Democrats and a voracious media are slapping paint as fast as they can.
Romney campaign officials, I know from a visit there this week, seem to think they have plenty of time to tell their story. They don't.
Enter Thursday's Washington Post story about a young Mitt Romney at the exclusive Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., leading a group of boys in a vicious incident in which they pinned down and cut off the dyed-blond hair of a "different" classmate.
I know the school. Some of my best friends are graduates. I'm also old enough to remember the conformist pressures of the mid-1960s and how they were just beginning to be gingerly challenged by closeted boys, such as the one Romney is said to have targeted.
Romney's assertion in interviews Thursday that he didn't remember the attack -- an event attested to by a half-dozen of his fellow students -- isn't credible. Either it happened or it didn't. Saying you don't remember won't cut it.
The image of a nasty, "Lord of the Flies"-style Romney at a formative time of his life will have an impact. One reason is that the story broke against the backdrop of President Obama's decision to support same-sex marriage. Issues in gay life were already top of the mind.
Another reason is that Romney recently allowed a campaign spokesman to resign after conservatives complained about the man's sexual orientation.
But a key reason is that people know so little about the grown-up Mitt Romney. And that, in good measure, is Romney's fault.
First, his primary campaign was predicated not on touting himself or the details of his business and government accomplishments. Instead, it was built on dropping bombs on a series of hapless GOP foes.
His strategy for the general election is pretty much the same: attack. Now, it is to attack the president for every real and perceived weakness in the American economy. Romney wants to talk about joblessness, underwater mortgages, foreclosures. He wants to talk about himself solely as a successful businessman.
Romney has several reasons for not wanting to dwell on his full narrative. They include a natural reticence, concerns about the salability of Mormonism, a desire to keep the focus on Barack Obama, and a fear that to talk about his life would be to dwell on his personal wealth and family connections.
But if he doesn't paint his own portrait -- and fast -- others will paint it for him. Romney could suffer the same fate that another GOP candidate was dealt by another incumbent Democrat.
In 1996, using the then-new ammunition of "soft money" contributions, President Bill Clinton and his team carpet-bombed Republican nominee Bob Dole throughout the spring of the campaign year. By the time Dole, a war hero and master legislator, reached the GOP convention in San Diego, he was hopelessly behind.
This race is sure to be closer -- the economy is too dicey for anything else -- but the Obama aim is to keep Romney's personal ratings too low for him to win in the end.
Romney needs to tell his own story better, and soon, or the accretion of Cranbrook-style stories will do the telling for him.
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