Competing for Space

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA—Mitt Romney took a note from the Gingrich playbook Friday afternoon when he visited Florida's Space Coast. Beyond the photo-op in front of a space module that once went up on one of the now retired space shuttles though, Romney made no attempt to match Gingrich's grandiose vision. He laid out reasons why he will continue a basic investment in space exploration—namely commercial, national defense and Armageddon type catastrophes—but didn't lay out any precise ideas for what he would do if he becomes president other than a vague suggestion that more of the burden should rest on private enterprises.

Instead he proffered an inspirational story of a time when he spoke at a Boston Boys Scouts meeting. They had invited a scoutmaster from Colorado, who relayed a story of how NASA had once taken a flag from the troop and would fly it to outer space. Only it never left the atmosphere; the flag launched on the shuttle Challenger, which exploded upon launch in 1986.  As it turned out, the flag survived unharmed thanks to the protective capsule it had been housed in for the launch. Romney said that the scoutmaster brought the exact flag to the meeting. "I looked at that flag right there next to me, and I put my hand on it and pulled it out," Romney said, "and it was like electricity ran through my hand. Because I thought of the sacrifices of the brave men and women in our space program, who carry the spirit of America."

Space policy might be of minor importance, but it's a microcosm of Romney's larger problem; he lacks a thorough justification for his campaign. Beyond the sense that he is the inevitable Republican nominee who generally likes business, he lacks a prime motive for becoming president. He touts the knowledge he gained from working in the private sector, but does not translate that into any unique policies or proposals during his speeches or in the debates. Romney looked like a deer in the headlights once those qualifications were thrown into doubt by Gingrich's surprise South Carolina victory. To his benefit though, he's running in one of the weakest Republican fields from recent years so all he had to do was ride out the storm before Gingrich self-imploded.

The pro-America pro-capitalism shtick might be enough to carry Romney through the primary, but he'll need a more robust explanation once he reaches the general election. I spoke with Fred Beteille following the event; though he does not work in the space industry himself, he was dissatisfied with the lack of detail. "I wanted to hear what he said about the space program. I think you need a little more specifics from him on what exactly he's going to do," he said. "It's nice that he's saying he's going to support the space system when he's standing here in Brevard County, but we need a few more specifics. Not a pipe dream like Newt Gingrich."

He was no fan of Gingrich's proposal—"I would like Gingrich to tell us how he's going to launch 5-7 rockets a day"—but appreciated that the speaker was at least willing to layout a plan. "I don't want to hear that from Mitt Romney," Beteille said, "but just a little bit more specifics." Beteille is historically a Democratic voter, but he is less than satisfied with the current president. "I would say that I got from leaning towards Obama to neutral," he said "I like the things he's saying; Obama says a lot, Obama doesn't do a lot."

Romney is Beteille 's clear favorite among the remaining Republican candidates—"I would like to see him get the Republican nomination, I don't think there's anybody that could help the country as much as he can from the four remaining Republican candidates." But Beteille is one of those elusive undecided voters "waiting to see more." He seemed to be leaning toward Romney in a hypothetical Obama-Romney general election, but only if Romney can shift gears and ignore the empty clichés and broad overviews on space and other topics to actually begin discussing the exactly policies which set him apart from the incumbent.

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