WASHINGTON -– When Mitt Romney told NAACP conventioneers this week that they would support him for president if they only "understood who I truly am in my heart," it sounded similar to a comment the Republican presidential contender made six months ago.
It was Jan. 9, one day before the New Hampshire primary. Romney was speaking to the Nashua Chamber of Commerce at the Nashua Radisson. After his speech, a woman rose from her seat and told the candidate that Republicans needed "to do a better job of telling our story."
"We need to convince the masses that our vision as conservatives benefits them," the woman told Romney.
"This is going to be a battle about describing my heart, my passion to help -- if you will -- the great majority of Americans," Romney said.
If that is indeed the way that Romney views the 2012 election, then he and his campaign lost that battle this week. Romney will have a chance at the party convention in August to introduce himself on a national stage to the country. But from now to then, Democrats hope to bloody him like Republican Bob Dole was in 1996, sending him to the convention as damaged goods.
The melee over Romney's tenure at Bain Capital this past week was a playbook for how Democrats aim to do so.
Romney has resisted calls so far from conservatives to run a policy-heavy campaign. This pushes him toward an alternative approach: combine attacks on President Barack Obama's record with appeals to a different vision of governance and political philosophy, buttressed by a focus on biography and personal attributes.
But when it comes to how Americans regard Romney the man, the Republican's campaign is on defense.
For months, Obama's reelection campaign has pounded away at Romney's character, painting him as a greedy, out of touch, malicious and possibly even criminal rich white guy. Democrats claim it's working.
Priorities USA, a super PAC supporting the president, touted a survey of swing state voters this week that showed Romney's career in private equity at Bain Capital is becoming more of a liability. The Romney campaign argued that the national polling average has remained unchanged since mid-April, despite the Obama campaign spending $46 million on TV ads since that time, 76 percent of it on negative attacks on Romney.
A Romney campaign official said that most voters who have told pollsters Romney's business background is a negative factor were already planning to vote against him, citing data deep in the cross-tabs of a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Tuesday.
But USA Today reported Monday that "at this point, Obama is the clear winner in the ad wars" in the key states that will decide the election.
"Among swing-state voters who say the ads have changed their minds about a candidate, rather than just confirmed what they already thought, 76% now support the president, vs. 16% favoring Romney," wrote USA Today's Susan Page, though her report added that more Democrats had changed their minds than independents or Republicans.
In a presidential election expected to be extremely close, voters' personal perceptions of Obama and Romney will be significant. Romney has added weight to this factor by deciding not to campaign daily on specific policy proposals.
Romney's campaign leaders in Boston have run an economy-only campaign, insisting that by repeating that Obama has failed to put Americans back to work, they are driving the message that most Americans care about more than anything.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told a radio interviewer Friday that there are no plans to change this, at least for the rest of the summer.
"You’re going to hear the Romney campaign talk about the fact that this guy has destroyed America’s economy," Sununu told a Philadelphia talk radio station.
The focus on Obama's failures, and not on Romney's agenda, is a recognition that Obama has shown little willingness to run on his own record, and an attempt to give the president's campaign the smallest target to shoot at.
But Obama is shooting, and even if it's at a target of his own making, many Americans see this Obama-created caricature of Romney rather than the glossy version Romney and his campaign want to present.
“If every voter knew him as I do, the election would be over," Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who worked for Romney in 2002, told the Washington Post.
Murphy's comment is self-serving, since it suggests that the two men Romney chose instead of Murphy as TV ad and message gurus -- Stu Stevens and Russ Schriefer -- are falling down on the job.
Nonetheless, Murphy is not the only person who knows Romney and thinks that if most Americans saw him up close, they would have a radically different perception of him. Close aides to Romney talk of being inspired by him, by his drive, his virtue, and his family life.
That view of Romney is having a hard time cutting through the clutter, though the GOPer's campaign is trying to push it. Their latest brush stroke was a Spanish-language ad this week that featured Romney's son Craig, a Spanish-speaker, calling his dad "a man of great convictions."
"He's been married for over 40 years to my mom. Together they have five sons and 18 grandchildren," Craig Romney says. "What he has achieved has been through hard work -- and it is with that same dedication that he will fight to get our country on the right track and create jobs.”
“I invite you to get to know him, and listen to his ideas," Craig says.
The Romney campaign has created numerous other family-centered videos and used events like Mother's Day to put Romney's eloquent and very likable wife, Ann, in the spotlight.
But if conservatives have been ringing alarm bells for weeks, if not months, about Romney's image and campaign, they switched to a full-blown gong this week.
The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger warned that Romney may be "headed for a Dukakis-like catastrophe" and lamented his decision to allow the press to take pictures of him and his wife on a jet-ski during their vacation last week.
"Did anyone in the Romney campaign warn the candidate that the beach photo would evaporate the moment the couple on that jet ski entered a lake teeming with press corps piranhas?" Henninger wrote.
Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, suggested Romney read "The Big Short," by Michael Lewis, to help him gain empathy for working-class Americans and to "understand why his own financial successes are regarded by many voters with suspicion rather than respect."
"To grasp why so many middle-class Americans are cool to his persona and achievements, Romney needs to see the 21st century economy the way they see it –- as an arena in which, as Lewis puts it, 'the line between gambling and investing is artificial and thin,'" Douthat wrote.
As of now, Douthat wrote, "it’s Romney who seems detached and calculating."
Romney's own former rival from the presidential primary, Newt Gingrich, was at a loss in an interview with The Huffington Post this week to explain Romney's struggles.
"When people say to me, 'Why isn't this connecting?' the truth is," Gingrich said, pausing for a few beats before exclaiming: "I don't know."
Gingrich switched tacks. "The truth is, also, if you're tied at 47/47 in yesterday's poll, or approximately that number, the incumbent president is in a world of hurt."
But moments later, he came back to the theme.
"He doesn't need more details," Gingrich said of Romney. "If anything, he probably needs more humor."
But Karl Rove, the godfather of Republican political machinery who is most often -– in his weekly column -– a reliable wielder of numbers and statistics against Obama, ended his dispatch this week with a warning to Romney about the need for the Republican to begin talking more about his own ideas for how he would run the country.
"He will need to do much more than just criticize Mr. Obama's many failures," Rove wrote. "He has many important policies on his website. He could cite them more consistently in his speeches and point voters to them in his campaign ads."
"That doesn't mean rolling out everything right now. If Team Romney were to do that, the media will declare it old news by Labor Day. But to close the sale, Mr. Romney needs to be perceived on Election Day as the man with a plan," Rove wrote.
Gingrich said he found such talk "a little bit strange."
"It's like people come up to me and say, 'Why doesn't Romney have a plan?' And I point out he has a 57-page economic proposal. The problem they've got is packaging it," Gingrich said. "I was watching this morning from a speech yesterday. He clearly is offering an alternative to Obama. He's for free enterprise, Obama's for big government. He's for lower taxes, Obama's for higher taxes. To say it's not an alternative -- I don't personally understand what it is that isn't connecting."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Republican strategist Mike Murphy worked from Romney in 2008, instead of 2002.
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