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Team Romney, Pining For John McCain

Mitt Romney may be on the verge of wrapping up the Republican nomination against the bowler and the bawler, but it is a sign of what a weak position he now finds himself in that his own advisers are comparing him unfavorably to that powerhouse candidate of 2008, John McCain. Politico today released the latest installment of its campaign e-book (think Dickens for Playbook junkies) and it included these gems:

Aides continue to debate whether they should seize even tighter control of the former Massachusetts governor or yield to the push by some advisers to “let Romney be Romney” — but they have yet to crack the code. “They haven’t been able to grapple with the central issue and central challenge they face as a campaign,” one Romney adviser lamented. “In the absence of a candidate who has any poetry — who has any ability to connect on an emotional level — how do you create a bond?”... "If you’re a super-charismatic candidate like George W. Bush or John McCain, they both ran without a real bold agenda,” the adviser continued. “They had other, more emotional-level, values-level ways to connect with voters. This guy just doesn’t have it. He has all the warmth of a Wall Street CEO.”
Another adviser, a GOP operative consulted by Team Romney, had an even more radical idea than a bold agenda.
“I think they’ve got to unleash him and take the bad with the good,” he said. “I think he’s trapped in his campaign. You hear people joke that Mitt Romney is the one candidate that you would never say, ‘Okay, we’re going to let the governor be the governor.’ They would never say, ‘Let Romney be Romney.’ Like it or not, they need to do that because the more they put on a facade, the more people pick up on it.”
This adviser, who had coached Sen. John McCain in 2008, wanted to double down on the campaign’s earlier inclination to let Romney embrace his fortune for the sake of authenticity, though in a less off-putting and awkward fashion — more self-made man, less Richie Rich.
“John could do ten minutes of a town hall and get a crowd with him. He’d tell the same jokes every stop, but people thought, ‘That’s John McCain.’ And so people knew where John’s core was. They may not have agreed with him on everything, but they knew he had a core. They knew he was a real person. Mitt Romney is still a big question mark. What’s his core? Does this guy have a core, or is this just a guy running because he wants to be president? And I think that has dogged him from day one.”

Ouch. What makes this all the more devastating is that it is echoing exactly the line that David Axelrod and David Plouffe started using against Romney a few months ago—that he “lacks a core.” At the time, the Romney camp declared that this constituted a vicious personal attack. Now, apparently at least one Romney adviser agrees with the Davids.

But what I find most striking about this internal sniping is that these nameless advisers apparently share the same conviction as many Romney detractors: that there is some “real” Mitt Romney deep inside that is yearning to break into public view, if only allowed to do so. For Romney skeptics like Frank Rich, the thing lurking within is Romney’s religious identity, which drives him more than anything else but which he feels the need to tamp down in the face of anti-Mormon bigotry. For some of Romney’s advisers, meanwhile, there's apparently some other sort of hidden, more natural Mitt, who, as Politico suggests, apparently resembles your slightly odd and overeager next-door neighbor:

Tagg Romney, the candidate’s oldest son, articulated a side of his father that the campaign has struggled to portray.
“In his spare time, he wants to solve problems,” Tagg Romney said in an interview. “He wants to figure out, when he comes over to your house, he wants to figure out, ‘Well, your boiler’s not working. How are we going to fix the boiler?’ and ‘Have you noticed that some of your trees are dying out there? Why are your trees dying? What’s causing that? Can we figure that out, and can we go down to the hardware store and see if they’ve got something to fix that?’ And all of a sudden you see him driving a tractor in your backyard, and he’s pulling stuff up. He’s like, ‘Oh, these rocks were doing that.’ I mean, that’s just who he is.”

Tagg knows his dad as well as anyone, so I’m inclined to think there’s something to this, that Mitt the Fixer has gotten lost somewhat in the mix—though it’s worth noting that it's not just campaign artifice that’s doing that, but also Romney’s shrill Etch-a-Sketch conservative shtick. I also agree that there are moments when Romney can be more appealing than others. In the televised debates, for instance, he loses some of the saccharine condescension that make his stump speeches so excruciating—perhaps because he is then among equals, or at least near-equals (his opponents and the moderators), he lets himself be the attentive, sharp-minded, competitive man he is, sparring freely with the others, rather than lapsing into the awful, America the Beautiful patronizing that he apparently feels is required when confronted with regular people.

But Mitt Romney has been campaigning in public view for enough years now, with enough different advisers and strategies, that it really seems high time that we stopped waiting for some new, more natural Willard to be revealed. I come back yet again to what I concluded in my review of the new Romney biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman: 

What if it is hard to divine the deepest recesses of Romney because those recesses simply do not go all that deep?
This is, after all, a man who decided that he was going to devote at least the first half of his adult life to making an enormous pile of money. Even after the Kennedy race [in 1994], which he later said had only heightened his interest in politics, Romney went right back to Bain Capital, for what would prove to be his most lucrative years of all. It is perhaps uncouth to say so, but does not Romney’s fixation on a line of work that amounted to high-stakes data-crunching and paper-shuffling suggest a rather constricted view of the world and a shallow sense of greater purpose?

John McCain and George W. Bush didn’t need some Svengali to release their authentic selves from within; it’s a sign of how much we’ve inflated the role of the campaign strategist (Rove, Salter, Schmidt) that we imagine that such a trick could yet be performed on Romney. It really may be time to accept that in Romney’s case, the cliche applies: what you see is what you get. Who knows, maybe the next breathless Politico e-book installment will bring Romney making that very point in a backroom confrontation over chocolate milks. Lay off guys. I yam what I yam.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis