Mitt Romney's Big Lead -- And Big Problem

Paul Greenberg

3/27/2012 3:49:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

That would have been a big story out of Illinois last week if only Mitt Romney had lost as big as he won. It would have meant the Republican front-runner wasn't the Republican front-runner any more, which has happened before in this up-and-down-and-up-again race for the GOP's presidential nomination. Instead, he won by double digits rather than just squeaking past Rick Santorum as he'd done in Michigan and Ohio.

But that story was promptly offset by Rick Santorum's wholly expected win in Louisiana's GOP primary. The odds were always against the front-runner there. Republican voters in the Bayou State weren't about to be swept off their feet by a candidate who had to force his y'alls and spoke of "cheesy grits." Talk about a stranger in a strange land: No matter how hard Mitt Romney tried to pass himself off as just a good ol' boy from Wall Street, his generic American executalk wasn't exactly Louisiana's cup of roux.

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Whatever bumps and gaffes are still to come, and they will, the Romney organization grinds on in its methodical way, collecting more delegates, campaign contributions and endorsements. (Florida's Jeb Bush finally came through with his after the results from Illinois were in.) You can almost hear the Romney bandwagon creak out of low gear -- but it ain't in high yet. Not by a long shot.

Mitt Romney is a long-distance runner, not a sprinter. His strength is that of the party's establishment, but so is his weakness: a failure to connect with the true believers. The intangible magic that makes a great campaigner has yet to make an appearance in all his well-programed appearances.

What's he missing? It's what the great communicators, the Ronald Reagans and FDRs, had: a storyline. A gift for narration. A mastery of the media they had to work with at the time. Nobody's going to be elected president of the United States on the strength of a spreadsheet, or because he's a great data miner.

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Mr. Romney has the skill set of a corporate executive, but the American people aren't likely to be touched, moved and inspired by a profit-and-loss statement. We yearn for something more -- an aura. An aura of greatness, a presidential aura, the aura a great story casts. We live and believe by stories. No wonder the Bible is full of them.

The one and maybe the only affecting television commercial the Romney campaign has produced relates how the candidate reacted when a fellow executive at Bain Capital called him one summer day in 1996. As his associate, Robert Gay, tells the story:

"My 14-year-old daughter had disappeared in New York City for three days. No one could find her. My business partner stepped forward to take charge. He closed the company and brought almost all our employees to New York City. He said, 'I don't care how long it takes. We're going to find her.' He set up a command center and searched through the night. The man who helped save my daughter was Mitt Romney. Mitt's done a lot of things that people say are nearly impossible. But for me, the most important thing he's ever done is to help save my daughter."

The story is indeed a riveting one: The head of Bain Capital moved his corporate headquarters to the LaGuardia Airport Marriott Hotel. He brought the company's whole staff down from Boston and enlisted volunteers from other big-name firms -- Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Price Waterhouse -- and sent them out searching. Lawyers, accountants, suits of all occupations were soon prowling New York's parks, nightclubs, waterfront.

Coordinated with New York City's police department, the search was as organized, efficient and thorough as his business operation. A hot line was set up, and after three television stations picked up the story, a call came through. It was traced to a house in New Jersey, where the girl had been taken after a rave concert. And she was reunited with her family in a matter of hours.

That story is far more compelling than Mr. Romney's 59-point economic program or the disconnected series of soundbites he employs in the place of thought on the campaign trail. No amount of PowerPoint presentations will ever be able to compete with one good story when it comes to letting voters actually know a presidential candidate. The way FDR's fireside chats gave a whole nation the feeling he was talking to each one of us. The way Ronald Reagan could tell a story. Maybe that's why, at this point in his campaign, so many Americans feel they don't really know Mitt Romney. Or maybe never will. It takes more than talking points to wage a successful presidential campaign.