Shribman: Mitt Romney’s non-campaign

David Shribman

Defeated once for the Republican presidential nomination, defeated the next time for the White House, Mitt Romney never was at the center of Republican affection. Now that he’s contemplating a third try for the presidency, he’s suddenly the man at the center of Republican attention. He’s the guy everyone is talking about.

With the economy off life support and the former Massachusetts governor retaining his status as the poster child for the wealth gap, there might be little GOP appetite for a business wizard in the White House. With the party teeming with new faces, there might be little appeal in an old face — especially one with all the surface aspects of a Republican past that party insurgents now hold in contempt: a sporty name, a Harvard MBA, a record of conciliation in a contentious political state and the legacy of a famous family. (For gosh sakes, that description sounds like a Bush.)

So much is that profile held in contempt that potential presidential candidate Ted Cruz last week told the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention that, as the Texas senator put it, “If we nominate a candidate in that mold, the same people who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016 and the Democrats will win again.”

That’s on the one hand. But in a party with two right hands, there’s a flurry of gesticulation on the other one, along with a fistful of poll soundings to support the view that Romney should re-enter the presidential struggle. By more than 2-to-1, according to the latest CBS News Poll, Republicans want Romney to run again.

Fifty-nine, the percentage of Republicans who think the 2012 GOP nominee should mount a 2016 campaign, is an important number, perhaps more important that the number, three, of highly visible conservative columnists (Peggy Noonan, George Will, and Ross Douthat) who in recent days have recoiled at the notion of Romney Redux.

But the most important number, one, is the conviction Romney has that he’s the best Republican candidate to take on Hillary Clinton a year from November. And despite reports from members of the Republican establishment — a vastly diminished demographic — salivating at the notion of a Jeb Bush candidacy, the word from inside the Romney camp is that his top supporters, including his top fundraisers, are holding steady. It’s not quite a Mitt moment, but the Mitt people are staying put, at least momentarily.

“We’re not having trouble with our people,” says a top Romney operative. “Our only trouble is that we don’t yet have anything for our people to do.”

His prescription for ending the static surrounding a nascent Romney campaign: Say he’s running, and do it sooner rather than later.

If nothing else, the Romney team is battle-tested, though one criticism is that it is too tested, too traditional. The irony is that this critique is coming from the most traditional media outlets around (Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times) and stands in contradiction to the democratic spirit of the age (as expressed in the CBS News poll).

A blast from the past that might be an antidote to the blasting Romney is getting right now:

Presidential counselor Clark Clifford stepped off the Harry Truman whistle-stop train in the waning days of the 1948 campaign, ducked into a newsstand and picked up the newest issue of Newsweek, then an important newsweekly. Try as he might, Clifford was unable to hide from the president that he had the magazine, which included a poll of 50 top reporters saying that Truman could not win re-election against Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the Republican presidential nominee.

“I know every one of these 50 fellows,” the president told Clifford. “There isn’t one of them has enough sense to pound sand in a rat hole.”

That is basically the attitude Romney and his confidants have today.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.