Salem, New Hampshire

There's a clever line in a Silver Jews song that goes, "When the governor's heart fails / the state bird falls from its branch." That line popped into my head while I was watching Mitt Romney do an event at an Elks Lodge here this afternoon. I don't know what happens when a former governor's presidential campaign fails--the state flower wilts?--but I think we're about to find out.

The ironic thing about Romney's current predicament--having lost Iowa to Huckabee and now trailing McCain by five points on the eve of the New Hampshire primary--is that, in what may be the final days of his campaign, he's actually settled on a message that suits him. Romney is finally selling himself as the competence candidate. I say finally because, for much of this campaign, Romney was running as a culture warrior. The Romney game plan, as I understood it, was to establish his conservative bona fides on hot-button social issues like abortion and immigration--bona fides that were going to take some work establishing given his rather moderate stances on those issues in the past--and then pivot to take advantage of his business background and management experience. But the pivot never seemed to come.

Until now, that is. Jumping on the change bandwagon after Iowa, Romney is now running on the slogan "Washington Is Broken." The solutions he proposes for fixing it aren't really all that novel or different from those put forward by his rivals. Where Romney tries to set himself apart is by arguing that he's actually competent enough to execute those solutions. "How many decades has Washington been talking about ending illegal immigration?" he asked at the Salem rally today. "Like all Washington politicians, they all say they're going to secure the border, they just don't." He offered a similar riff on energy independence: "Independence on foreign oil--for how long have we heard that refrain out of Washington? I mean I remember Jimmy Carter talking about that. He was going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and it went on year after year after year, we're always going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and somehow, we're using more of it now than ever before." And so on and so forth.

Now, part of this new approach by Romney is a bit unwieldy, since the candidate he's trying to portray as Mr. Inside-the-Beltway is McCain. But, putting that small matter aside,  Romney's claims that he could actually execute some of these changes is believable--given his business expertise and management skills. Indeed, this "change agent" argument Romney's now making doesn't seem that different from the sort of pitch he must have used while scoping out LBO targets when he was at Bain Capital. In his new guise, Romney--whose love affair with PowerPoint has been sorely tested by the conventions of a presidential campaign--even has a numbered "To Do" list that hangs on stage behind him, with items like "Make America Safer" and "Cut the Pork" that he says have been raised by voters at his various rallies. As he explained to the crowd in Salem today, "We'll keep adding on as we keep going across the country."

But, the problem for Romney is, he's been viewed as a phony for so much of the presidential campaign that it seems unlikely voters will believe that this new "change agent" Romney is really, truly him. Having tried on so many guises over the course of the past year, Romney is now unable to be himself--even when he is.

And that's why the event in Salem this afternoon had something of a funereal quality. There weren't any empty seats, but the Romney campaign had seemingly guaranteed that by holding it in a cramped Elks Lodge. (McCain, by contrast, held is Salem event on Sunday in a middle school gymnasium.) When Romney finished his pitch, he was greeted with polite but hardly raucous applause. And when the rally hit the 30 minute mark, a number of voters began to leave--as if they'd budgeted a half hour for Mitt and they'd seen or heard nothing that warranted going over that budget. I see (via Romney symp Noam) that Joe Klein thinks Romney's rising and McCain's fading, but that's not what I saw over the past two days at the candidate's respective events. I think the polls probably have it right. And if Romney is 0 for 2 as of tomorrow night, I think that even the primary in his ancestral home of Michigan might be a lost cause for him.

--Jason Zengerle