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There’s a good a chance Mitt Romney will win the primaries in Arizona and Michigan tonight, drawing that much closer to the Republican nomination. But the media’s portrayal of him has been anything but that of a champion—it has been downright withering. Take last week’s economic speech, billed as a major address by his campaign. The coverage was scornful, all but ignoring the news (his proposing a 20 percent income tax cut) and focusing mainly on the empty stadium where the event took place and his latest rich-guy gaffe, when Romney bragged toward the end of his speech about owning four cars, including two Cadillacs—his “fleet of personal vehicles,” as the New York Times drily put it. Romney’s advisers are furious. What’s going on? Here are eight reasons why he’s getting pasted—and why his struggles will likely continue:
1) He’s Hiding: Romney views the press with aspersion, engaging with reporters much less often than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. That was a viable strategy back when his winning the nomination seemed a lock, but Romney’s ahead by an inch, not a mile, and he’s getting punished for pretending otherwise. Denied access or real news, reporters will write about optics and gaffes—and do so with relish.
2) He’s Trying to Run Out the Clock: Romney’s stump speech is a collection of platitudes and the strange ritual recitation of the lyrics to America the Beautiful. As one of his fundraisers put it to John Heilemann of New York magazine: “I have never seen anything more ridiculous or belittling.” This creates the impression that Romney has nothing to say—or worse, has chosen not to say anything substantive—and is trying to coast to the nomination. Reporters feel duty-bound to push back.
3) He’ll Say Anything: Romney has a reputation as someone who will say anything to get ahead. Lately, he’s been struggling, and now—presto!—he has rolled out a new tax cut. Romney isn’t granted the benefit of the doubt, so the assumption is that this is a political ploy, not a bold policy choice.
4) He Wants to Have It Both Ways: Romney’s advisers fault the media for focusing on trivialities, such as the empty stadium, rather than the size of his proposed cut. A big reason why his tax cut wasn’t treated more seriously is that he won’t say how he’ll pay for it—he wants to take credit for the tax cut but avoid the responsibility of funding it.
5) He’s Awkward: It’s hard to recall a likely major-party nominee who was less of a natural politician than Romney. The constant references to his wealth—the $10,000 bet with Rick Perry, the Cadillacs, his quip yesterday about not being an “ardent” Nascar fan but being friends with several team owners—have become a bizarre-but-captivating spectacle, what James Fallows has aptly dubbed “Romney’s gaffe-Tourette’s.”
6) He’s Underperforming: Turnout and enthusiasm in GOP primaries and caucuses are both way down this year. That’s certainly not Romney’s fault alone. But his candidacy in particular is based on the idea that he’s an electable alternative to Barack Obama—yet his own party has obvious qualms about him.
7) He Has Forfeited His Right to Complain: Last November the Romney campaign rolled out its first ad, an attack on President Obama built around a quote taken entirely out of context. In the ad, Obama is heard to say, “if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” But Obama was quoting a Republican, John McCain. Oddly, the Romney campaign bragged about having done this “intentionally.” This cost them a large measure of credibility with the press, which became much less receptive to the campaign’s subsequent complaints.
8) He’s a Mystery: Romney has been running for President for six years. He’s highly accomplished in business and government. He has money, good looks, a beautiful family—yet most political insiders feel they don’t understand what makes him tick. That doesn’t appear likely to change, because Romney is so guarded and press averse, yet at the same time he apparently is incapable on his own of making a strong case for his candidacy. Still, Romney supporters can take solace in this fact: Practically nobody believes he won’t wind up as the nominee.