Dean Barnett: The Mitt Romney I know

It reads like an obituary, in which case it’s premature: According to Politico, Team Romney’s feeling confident enough about Michigan that they’re going back on the air in South Carolina. So much for the Fredhead hope of a dropout before the primary. Some of the commenters at MM’s site are dismissing Barnett’s piece as spin but he’s been telling me all of this privately for months — Mitt’s a wonderful guy, razor sharp, but he’s run an essentially dishonest campaign insofar as he made “values” the centerpiece when his top priority lies elsewhere. All of which is comforting yet devastating in how it undermines the legend of Romney as a manager par excellence. If that’s so, how’d he end up stuck with the wrong message and hanging by a thread?

Early in the presidential race, Mr. Romney perceived a tactical advantage in becoming the campaign’s social conservative. Religious conservatives and other Republicans with socially conservative views found the two early front-runners, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, unacceptable. As someone who shares the beliefs of social conservatives, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity that he could exploit. He made social issues the heart of his candidacy.

This tack rang false with the public because it was false. The problem wasn’t so much the perception of widespread “flip-flopping” on issues like abortion. The public allows its politicians a measure of flexibility. But the public correctly sensed something disingenuous about Mr. Romney’s campaign.

Voters perceived the cynicism of a campaign that tried to exploit wedge issues rather than focus on the issues that in truth most interested the candidate. They sensed phoniness. As a consequence, many have grown to feel that Mitt Romney can’t be trusted. This lack of trust is now the dominant and perhaps insurmountable obstacle that the Romney campaign faces.

I think Barnett’s right to the extent that Mitt committed the sin of flip-flopping on his key issue. That’s the difference between him and, say, Giuliani and McCain on immigration. Rudy and Maverick can get away with that because they’re not selling themselves as the immigration candidate; if you vote for them, you’re voting for the war. If you vote for Mitt, you’re voting for the guy who believes in life and values — except that he didn’t believe in those things not so long ago. If he had run on competence and economic acumen, the flip-flops on “family issues” wouldn’t be a big deal. By making “family issues” his core plank, he’s near-fatally compromised.

It’s more complicated than that, needless to say. There are some big names and a lot of personality in the GOP field this year, which makes it hard for an unknown whose strong suit isn’t his charisma to break through. But he’s still plugging. Here’s the new ad going up in South Carolina, well timed to coincide with voters’ worries about the economy. Is this the first move towards remaking Mitt’s image in the Iacocca-esque technocrat mold Barnett hopes for? Pay attention to his speech tonight.

Update: Here’s what McCain’s running in SC. Core message mania!