Amid Romneycare fight, voters ask: Where's Mitt?
What is Mitt Romney up to? With his recent healthcare speech in Michigan, Romney has tried, again, to overcome the legacy of the individual-mandate universal healthcare law he signed as governor of Massachusetts.
Will he succeed this time? Well, his GOP rivals, as well as his Democratic critics, are eager to remind the world that Romneycare looks a lot like Obamacare, and on the day Romney delivered his healthcare speech, the Wall Street Journal published a devastating editorial attack under the headline "Obama's Running Mate." Early signs don't look good.
But in some key caucus and primary states, there is another, more basic question being asked these days: Where is the Romney campaign?
Romney has not been to Iowa at all this year. His first visit is scheduled for May 27, when he will give a speech to an economic group in Des Moines. "I don't see Romney playing in Iowa," says a strategist in the state who supported a different candidate in 2008 but is unaffiliated this year. "I don't think he's going to spend a lot of time here. It will be way different from his 2008 strategy."
Four years ago, Romney spent about $10 million to build a huge organization in Iowa. His name, voice and picture were everywhere. For example, his campaign was the second-biggest advertiser on Des Moines radio giant WHO for all of 2007 -- just behind the top ad buyer, Monsanto farm chemicals. But in the end, Romney lost to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who prevailed with a tiny fraction of Romney's money and staff. Don't look for Romney to spend that kind of cash in Iowa again.
Romney is also missing in action in another key early state: South Carolina. "In the 2008 campaign, it seemed like I was at a breakfast with Mitt Romney about once a week for four months," says one neutral observer in South Carolina. "Now, within a year of the primary, I haven't seen anything of him. He was working a lot harder in 2008 than he is now."
During a politics-filled week in South Carolina recently, I met a number of Republicans who supported Romney the last time around but do not plan to vote for him in 2012. They haven't fallen in love with another candidate; they've just fallen out of love with Romney. Their feelings were probably best expressed by long-shot presidential candidate Herman Cain, a 2008 Romney supporter, who at the GOP debate in Greenville explained why he's no longer on the Romney team: "Because he did not win."
Being from Massachusetts, Romney has of course paid more attention to New Hampshire, visiting there a couple of times this year, as well as campaigning for other candidates there in 2010. That has led to speculation that Romney is eyeing a plan in which he would go full-bore in New Hampshire but de-emphasize two of the first three contest states.
Not so, says the Romney camp. "Mitt's going to play in all the states," says one Republican close to Romney. "Across the board."
But there's no doubt that Romney 2012 won't be the same as Romney 2008. "It's a different year, a different climate, a different field," says the Republican. "Smart politicians understand that each cycle is different, and I hope you think we're smart enough not to do what we did last time, because you may have noticed it didn't work out all that well. We're going to be smarter in how we play." Details of the plan, the Republican said, are a secret.
Romney is often described as a front-runner in the GOP race, and indeed, the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows him at or near the head of the pack. In reality, though, it's hard to say there is any front-runner in the wide-open and jumbled GOP presidential contest. Voters are open to new names and are noticeably cool about voting for any holdovers from 2008.
Meanwhile, as he crafts his new strategy, Romney still faces the terrible dilemma of Romneycare. His Obamacare-like plan is a liability with most of the GOP base, so if he continues to defend it, he'll alienate potential supporters -- no matter how many PowerPoint presentations he comes up with to explain that it's really a good thing. But if Romney abandons Romneycare, he'll feed the narrative from 2008 that he is a flip-flopper.
Romney is a smart man, and his success in business and politics is no accident. He still might win this time. But his secret strategy better be very, very good.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.