One of my regrets in life is losing the chance to debate Mitt Romney and whip his ass. It was the fall of 2002. Mitt Romney had thundered into Massachusetts with enough money to grab the Republican nomination for governor. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to secure the Democratic nomination. One week before the Democratic primary, I was tied in the polls with the state treasurer, well ahead of four other candidates. But my campaign ran out of cash. Despite pleas from my campaign manager, I didn't want to put a second mortgage on the family home. The rest is history: The state treasurer got the nomination, I never got to debate Mitt, and Mitt won the election.
Now, many polls show Mitt leading the pack for the Republican nomination, which surprises me given the Republicans' recent penchant for self-immolation. Mitt would pose the most serious challenge to a second Obama term.
I say this not because Mitt's mind is the sharpest of the likely contenders (Newt Gingrich is far more nimble intellectually). Nor because his record of public service is particularly impressive (Tim Pawlenty took his governorship seriously, while Mitt as governor seemed more intent on burnishing his Republican credentials outside Massachusetts). Nor because Mitt is the most experienced at running a business (Donald Trump has actually managed a major company, while Mitt made his money buying and selling companies). Nor, finally, because he's especially charismatic or entertaining (Sarah Palin can work up audiences, and Mike Huckabee is genuinely funny and folksy, while Mitt delivers a speech so deliberately he seems to be driving a large truck).
Mitt Romney's great strength is that he looks, sounds, and acts presidential.
Policy wonks like me want to believe that the public pays more attention to candidates' platforms and policy positions. Again and again we're proved wrong. Unless a candidate is way out of the mainstream (Barry Goldwater and George McGovern come to mind), the public tends to vote for the person who makes them feel safest at a visceral level, who reassures them that he'll take the best care of the country: not because of what he says but because of how he says it.
In this regard, looks matter. Taller candidates almost always win over shorter ones (meaning even if I'd whipped him in a debate, Romney would probably still have won the governorship). Good-looking ones with great smiles garner more votes than those who scowl or perspire (John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon), thin ones are elected over fat ones (William Howard Taft to the contrary notwithstanding), and the bald need not apply (would Eisenhower have made it if Stevenson had been blessed with a thick shock?).
Voices also matter. Deeper registers signal gravitas; higher and more nasal emanations don't command nearly as much respect (think of Ronald Reagan versus Jimmy Carter, or Barack Obama versus John McCain).
And behavior matters. Voters prefer candidates who appear even-tempered and comfortable with themselves (this was Obama's strongest advantage over McCain in 2008). They also favor the candidate who projects the most confidence and optimism (think Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan, and Bill Clinton).
Romney has it all. Plus a strong jaw, gleaming white teeth, and perfect posture. No other Republican hopeful comes close.
What does Mitt stand for? It's a mystery -- other than a smaller government is good and the Obama administration is bad. Of all the Republican contenders, Romney has most assiduously avoided taking positions. He's written two books, but I challenge anyone to find a clear policy in either. Both books are so hedged, conditioned, boring, and bland that once you put them down, you can't pick them up.
Mitt is reputed to say whatever an audience wants to hear, but that's not quite right. In reality, he says nothing but does it in such a way that audiences believe they've heard what they want to hear. He is the chameleon candidate. To call Mitt Romney an empty suit is an insult to suits.
Yet Romney is gaining ground over Obama. According to the most recent Marist poll, in a hypothetical presidential matchup, Obama now holds a bare 1-point lead over Romney, 46 percent to 45 percent. In January, Obama led Romney by 13 points.
Why is Mitt doing so well? Partly because Obama's positions are by now well known, while voters can project anything they want onto Mitt. It's also because much of the public continues to worry about the economy, jobs, and the price of gas at the pump, and they inevitably blame the president.
But I suspect something else is at work here, too. To many voters, President Obama sounds and acts presidential, but he doesn't look it. Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for people uncomfortable that their president is black. Mitt is their great white hope.