"If Mitt Romney's so bad," Stuart Stevens asked me, "why's he beating Barack Obama?" Romney had just finished up his rally in Newark, Ohio, and he was shaking hands in the sun-blasted courthouse square. Stevens, one of his top strategists, had ambled back to the press area to field questions, Coke can in hand, in the way that campaign big-shots will do when their guy is heating up. When the gaggle of reporters dissipated, I asked him whether he thought the five-day bus tour was an opportunity for Romney to shake loose from the rap that he's too stiff and doesn't connect. After all, I suggested, whatever Obama's weaknesses, he's never faltered on the who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer with scale. Stevens, betraying the soaring confidence of the Romney camp, wouldn't accept even that.
"I think that at this very moment," he said, "there's probably rarely been a candidate who connects as badly as President Obama. Until he addresses his failures on the economy and accepts responsibility, voters just won't listen to him." He peered through his Nike sunglasses and added: "Right now he's a terrible candidate."
"I just think that we went through this primary period of great retail politicking, 100 town halls or more, and Mitt Romney's very good at this," Stevens continued. "It's about being able to connect with people and talk about what matters, and he does that very well."
Those are bold words, even for a campaign adept at optimistic spin. But five months out from Election Day, the Romney campaign is delirious over what they're sure is an Icarus nosedive for the president. It's clear that they want a statement election -- not merely a 51-49 win but a run-the-table walloping that will send Obama into the history books as an undisputed calamity for America. Stevens wouldn't own up to that, of course, but you can see it in the swagger of the candidate and his retinue and you can hear it in the jokes they make. They believe Obama has made radical miscalculations not just in governing, but in positioning his campaign.
"One of the advantages in this race," Stevens said, "is that the Obama people don't respect Mitt Romney. And that's how the Republicans were with Bill Clinton, and it always hurt us. I can't tell you how many meetings I sat in in 1992 where it was like, 'are you kidding me? Bill Clinton is gonna beat George Bush? Do you know what the GDP of Arkansas is?'" The Romney family bus, parked nearby, cut on its engine with a throaty roar. "And then he went out and kicked our butts." We shook hands and Stevens departed with a smile.
By Reid Cherlin, GQ
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