Article — From the November 2007 issue
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Article — From the November 2007 issue
Mitt Romney keeps his South Carolina headquarters in a single-story building at one end of Gervais Street, which is Columbia’s version of Washington’s K Street, lined with the offices of local lobbyists, P.R. consultants, and other fixers and power brokers. The main room of Romney HQ is decorated with hand-painted red-and-blue signs, mementos from previous campaign events: mitt is my hero! mitt’s the man! mitt’s my pick! I visited on a steamy Monday night in late July, a time of year when few South Carolinians are interested in politics and fewer still want their evening interrupted by pitches for a presidential primary six months away. But eleven volunteers, mostly college students, were hunched in cubicles spread around the office, diligently placing cold calls to area residents. Boxes of pepperoni pizza from Domino’s (a company Romney backed when he ran the investment firm Bain Capital) were piled on a table against a wall.
“Senator Jim DeMint asked me to call you,” said one young woman, reading from a script into a cell phone. After running through a list of Romney’s accomplishments—rescuing the 2000 Olympics in Salt Lake City, “cutting a $3 billion deficit without raising taxes” while governor of Massachusetts—she asked if her listener would be willing to join DeMint, South Carolina’s junior senator, in supporting Romney over his Republican rivals. There was a pause.
“Well, I understand, ma’am, there’s a long way to go before the election,” the volunteer replied. “I just hope you’ll keep us in mind.”
Directing the phone-bank operation was Terry Sullivan, a thirty-three-year-old political consultant. As we spoke in his office at the back of the headquarters, Sullivan—dressed in a blue-and-white striped shirt, jeans, and flip-flops—pulled from a laptop on his desk a smattering of fund-raising numbers, TV advertising rates for various states, and other political detritus. “There’s a poll out today that shows McCain’s got 10 percent in South Carolina, and he had 36 in April,” he said. “Rudy’s got 28 percent, Fred Thompson has 27, and we’ve only got 7, but [Newt] Gingrich is included and that pulls straight from us—those are Mitt Romney voters.”
South Carolina is known for its hard-charging political consultants, and Sullivan is undeniably a rising star. After growing up in North Carolina and serving as youth coordinator for Jesse Helms’s final Senate run in 1996, Sullivan relocated to South Carolina the following year to work on a congressional campaign. Now he is a partner of TTS Strategies, the consulting firm run by J. Warren Tompkins, perhaps South Carolina’s most prominent Republican operative and Romney’s chief handler here. Although he was reluctant to go into details about who exactly was being targeted tonight by the campaign’s phone-bankers, Sullivan defined them broadly as “hard cores.” He elaborated: “We set out to identify and recruit grassroots activists, because no one else cares about the presidential election at this point. These are people who are just about guaranteed voters, the type who turn out even for special elections. Political campaigns are checkers, not chess. It’s largely about turnout, and that means coming out for a candidate they are excited about or to stop a candidate that they’re angry about.”
For at least two decades, our political landscape has been dominated by consultants; but there is no presidential campaign this year whose success or failure so will depend on media managers, marketing strategists, and political gurus as that of Mitt Romney. Unlike his chief competitors for the Republican nomination, he started out with a fairly low national profile and hence has needed to be introduced and marketed to a national audience. And the task of reformulating and repackaging the Romney brand—from the moderate Republican governor of the most liberal state in the Union to a red-meat social conservative and heir to Reagan—has been entrusted to an army of consultants far larger than that of any of his challengers. Campaign disclosure records are convoluted and poorly categorized, so it’s difficult to make a precise inventory. But based on filings with the Federal Election Commission, as of this summer, Romney’s campaign has employed more than a hundred different consultants, making combined payments to them of at least $11 million—roughly three times the amount spent by John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Much of that money paid for the creation and placement of TV ads through Romney’s media consultant and chief strategist, Alex Castellanos, but the campaign also spent heavily on polling, political strategy, and voter mobilization.
A strong showing in South Carolina is critical to Romney’s ambitions. Since 1980, the year of the first primary here, no Republican has ever gained his party’s nomination without winning the state, which is traditionally seen as the “Gateway to Dixie” and a key indicator of Southern support. If Romney—who prior to running for president was deemed so moderate in his politics that Human Events magazine put him on its list of the top ten “Republicans in Name Only”—can win over South Carolina’s conservative electorate, it augurs well for his chances in states where the party faithful are less fervent. It is a daunting sales job, but Sullivan was confident that Romney’s poll numbers in the state would eventually rise. “Everyone here knows Giuliani and McCain, and who doesn’t like Arthur Branch?” he said with a smile, referring to the character Thompson plays on the television show Law & Order. “We haven’t spent money yet to get [our message] out.”
He was talking mostly about TV advertising, but only a month later, a striking reminder came to light of just how South Carolina consultants tend to get their messages out. The Washington Post discovered that an anti–Fred Thompson smear site, entitled PhoneyFred.org, was being run by an executive of TTS Strategies. The site was immediately taken down; Romney made pains to distance himself from it, and so—much less believably—did Tompkins, who claimed an employee had conceived and run the site without his knowledge. Whatever the truth of the site’s origin, the PhoneyFred episode perhaps most vividly showed that when one is contemplating how to sell Mitt Romney, the problem of phoniness can never be far from the brain.
Earlier this year, the Boston Globe obtained a copy of an internal campaign PowerPoint presentation that outlined Romney’s strengths and weaknesses as he embarked on his presidential bid. One page—entitled “Primal Code for Brand Romney”—explained that Romney should market himself as a foil to such Massachusetts liberals as Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, and also run against such “enemies” as Hollywood, France, and “moral relativism.” Problems identified by the campaign included the perception that Romney would not make a tough wartime leader and the possibility that voters would be spooked by his Mormon religion.
The presentation also acknowledged the problematic view that Romney is a “phony” and a “political opportunist”; but that view is due at least in part to the fact that by any reasonable standard it’s true. The basic contours of his opportunism are by now fairly well known. During Romney’s unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate against Edward Kennedy in 1994, he espoused liberal beliefs on a number of social issues. A politically damaging clip from a campaign debate that year has surfaced, inevitably, on YouTube; it shows Romney posing as an advocate for gays, women, and minorities, and—in perhaps his gravest sacrilege—distancing himself from the political legacy of Ronald Reagan. Romney, Brent Bozell wrote the day after the debate in a piece for UPI, had “demonstrated very clearly . . . that he has more in common with liberal Democrats than he does with Conservatives.”
During the 1994 campaign, Romney’s then (and current) political consultant Charles Manning described Kennedy as a political opportunist on abortion. “He was pro-life before Roe v. Wade and now he’s changed,” Manning said. “Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position.” Manning was citing a twenty-three-year-old letter as evidence that Kennedy was a hypocrite. Campaign foes of the now pro-life Romney don’t need to go back nearly as far to do the same to him. In 2002, a Democratic opposition-research specialist named Jason Stanford was hired by a pro-choice group to research a number of Republican candidates nationwide. In the end, the group decided Romney was too liberal to oppose. “He wasn’t pure on choice, but they thought he was saying the right thing from a liberal, Democratic perspective,” Stanford told me. “And these are 100 percenters—you’re either for us or against us.”
It’s not just Romney’s flexibility on the issues that troubles people. A related problem is the sense that whatever his political convictions may be, he’s not passionate about them. As with the charge of political opportunism, there appears to be some truth to that perception. “Religion, family, and business were his focus,” a person who worked for Romney in a previous campaign told me. “He didn’t have strong opinions on the major issues of the day.” This person, who admires Romney but is not supporting him in his presidential bid, found it frustrating to see him now veer so sharply to the right, particularly on immigration. “He knows better, because he understands business and the economy and trade,” he said. “It’s an easy political position for him to take and a hard one for McCain and the president, who was governor of Texas. My guess is that he thought about the pros and cons, made a calculation, and picked a spot further out on the political spectrum.”
The image of slickness is heightened by Romney’s appearance and persona, which might be genuine but—because he seems like a computer-generated composite—invariably appears contrived. Everything about Romney looks and sounds manufactured: the pretty blonde wife and five Leave It to Beaver sons, the jutting Dick Tracy jaw, the ramrod-straight posture, the “say cheese” smile, and the Reaganesque hair, which even the campaign PowerPoint worried might be too perfect. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Romney had spent several hundred dollars of campaign funds for the ministrations of Hidden Beauty, a California company that describes itself as “a mobile beauty team for hair, makeup and men’s grooming and spa services.” This did not help the governor’s reputation for being a prepackaged candidate, though Stacy Andrews, who owns Hidden Beauty, said he barely needed makeup. “He’s already tan,” she told reporters. “We basically put a drop of foundation on him . . . and we powdered him a little bit.”
Romney’s speeches and public appearances seem particularly vapid. “There is no place that is more important to the future strength of America than the American home,” he said during a South Carolina stop. “The work that goes on within the walls of a home is the most important work that is ever done in America.” And even by the debased standards of contemporary political propaganda, his advertising looks remarkably hokey. Of particular note is a thirteen-minute, faux-cinéma-vérité video, posted on the campaign website, that shows Romney and his family sitting in their living room and having a supposedly spontaneous, unrehearsed conversation about whether Dad should run for president. The conversation took place last Christmas, and even though it was by then obvious to the entire country that he was running, Romney is seen dutifully taking down the pros and cons on a writing pad.
Some voters, understandably, question what Romney truly stands for, if anything. Conservatives in particular seem unconvinced of his sincerity, and that could be fatal in a state like South Carolina. “We may not be the smartest people in the country, but we know how to spot a fake,” a political consultant and popular blogger named Will Folks replied instantly when I asked why Romney had, at least until then, fared poorly in state polls.
Political consultants probably have a more exalted position in South Carolina than anywhere else in the country. The reasons for that aren’t entirely clear, but it likely has something to do with the state’s small size and tight political networks, both of which have allowed consultants to emerge as power brokers. It’s also probably connected to the legacy of Lee Atwater, one of the state’s most famous political figures. “Atwater was not a policy wonk, he was a strategist,” Lee Bandy, a longtime columnist and reporter for The State, the Columbia daily newspaper, told me. “And his strategy was to destroy his opponent. He was good at not leaving a trail. I’d tell him, ‘Lee, I know you did it, but I can’t find your fingerprints.’”
There are bitter rivalries among the big-name players, and consequently races here tend to be particularly hard-fought. Warren Tompkins’s chief adversary is Richard Quinn Sr., who ran McCain’s state campaign in 2000 and is doing so again this time around. Each has a loyal circle of associates, and state politicos frequently are labeled as belonging to one camp or the other. Quinn tends to be the more conservative of the two—he led the battle to keep the Confederate flag atop the capitol dome, founded a neo-Confederate magazine called Southern Partisan, and worked for the presidential campaigns of Pat Robertson in 1988 and Pat Buchanan in 1996—but the feud between them is personal, not ideological. Six years ago, Senator Lindsay Graham hired them both as a means of preventing internecine campaign warfare.
The power of the consultant class has contributed to South Carolina’s reputation as a swamp of dirty politics. In 1980, Atwater served as a consultant to G.O.P. congressional candidate Floyd Spence in his race against Tom Turnipseed, a heavily favored Democrat. Turnipseed had suffered from depression as a teenager and undergone electroshock therapy; Atwater ensured that became a campaign issue by planting a fake reporter at a press conference who innocently inquired as to whether Turnipseed had ever “had psychotic treatment.” In comments to reporters, Atwater remarked that Turnipseed had been “hooked up to jumper cables” one too many times. Spence won; the Republican National Committee soon hired Atwater.
A common practice in state politics has been the exploitation of race and religion. “In both cases, it drew upon intense, visceral fears on the part of large numbers of white voters that they were facing a life and death struggle, first to maintain white supremacy and later to prevent the rise of a godless political culture,” says Dan Carter, a former professor of American history at the University of South Carolina. Rod Shealy, who once worked under Atwater and is currently considered by many South Carolina insiders to be the smartest and shrewdest of the state’s consultants, gained a bit of national notoriety in 1990, when he was running the campaign of his sister, Sherry Martschink, a candidate for lieutenant governor. Shealy was looking to increase the Republican primary turnout of racially conservative low-country voters, a group largely sympathetic to Martschink. To do so, he recruited Benjamin Hunt Jr., an unemployed black fisherman, to run for Congress in the Republican primary against incumbent Arthur Ravenel Jr. Shealy paid Hunt’s filing fee, gave him $500, and mailed out thousands of hunt for congress leaflets showing the candidate with a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign in the background. “Many of us heard about Rod’s story and thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” Terry Sullivan said with a laugh when the subject came up. “It’s one of those harebrained schemes that you dream up in the middle of the night and wonder, ‘Would that be illegal?’”
Given the state’s history of political dirty tricks, it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the PhoneyFred.org story emerged in September. The site ripped Thompson as a fake conservative, bestowing on him such labels as “Phoney Fred,” “Fancy Fred,” “Flip-Flop Fred,” “Moron Fred,” and “Playboy Fred.” Tompkins said the site was solely the work of an employee, Wesley Donehue, who (so Tompkins and Romney’s staff claimed) did not work directly for the campaign—despite the fact that Romney had retained not only TTS (whose “daily operations” Donehue was running, according to the firm’s own literature) but also a direct-mail company, where Donehue worked. But Tompkins and Sullivan held firm in denying their own involvement, and as of press time they were still employed by the Romney campaign. “[Q]uite frankly I am very internet dysfunctional,” Tompkins claimed in an email after the story broke. “Anyone who knows me would laugh at the prospect of my even being involved in such an undertaking.”
This past summer, I visited Tompkins at his twelfth-floor office on Gervais Street, overlooking the state capitol. “National consultants don’t understand the nuances of South Carolina,” he told me. “We understand the state, the voters, how to reach them, and how to motivate them. And when you hire me, you get my network, my friends and associates, the people who go where I go.”
Of the dozen or so consultants I met in South Carolina, Tompkins is the only one who looks as if he would fit in as well in Washington as at home. Smooth and corporate, he wore a stylish blue suit and snappy, polished dress shoes. Photographs on his office walls include shots of Tompkins with former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, all past clients. Along with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, Tompkins was a key architect of Bush’s victory over McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary. That race is often seen as the ugliest one of modern times, with rumors spread—often via anonymous flyers, phones without caller ID, and untraceable email addresses—that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, that his wife was a drug addict, and that he favored removing tax-exempt status from churches.
One of Tompkins’s primary jobs in that campaign was to mobilize the religious right for Bush. “The first thing we had to do was build a wall between McCain and the social conservatives,” Tompkins later explained. “If we didn’t do that, we were dead. That’s why we went to Bob Jones,” by which he meant Bush’s notorious visit to the Christian university that then had a longstanding ban on interracial dating. And in a meeting of Bush’s high-level South Carolina strategists, Tompkins advocated a general hard-line approach. “We aren’t going to pussyfoot around,” Tompkins told the group. “We play it different down here. We’re not dainty, if you get my drift.” But when I asked him about South Carolina’s reputation for dirty pool, he shrugged it off. “Our goal,” he told me, “is to win within taste, reason, and the law.”
For the most part, Tompkins sees Romney as an easy sell. “You need three things to win: a messenger, a message, and money,” he said. “He’s bright, articulate, clean, has good moral character, and looks good on TV. He’s the complete and total package. Not to make a comparison to Ronald Reagan, but he has the same qualities: he’s got a good sense of humor and is a great communicator.” The flip-flop charges were not an issue, said Tompkins, who argued that Romney’s only real inconsistency was on the issue of abortion. “He flat changed his position. That will be acceptable, because since Roe v. Wade we’ve been seeking converts. He’s a success story—that will be a plus for us.”
The only worry in Tompkins’s mind was the governor’s current state of residence. “Since I was a kid, Massachusetts has been the whipping boy down here,” he said. “JFK was from there and Teddy, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Barney Frank. When all else fails, you try to link your opponent to Massachusetts. We have to sell his record there. He got elected as a Republican and did things the right way. He cut taxes, solved the health-care crisis, and put business principles ahead of expansion of government.”
Tompkins sees Romney’s strategic position in South Carolina as being formidable. In his view, Giuliani can’t win the primary because of his stance on abortion and gay rights, not to mention his three marriages and general lack of family values. “If it’s Romney versus Giuliani, we win if we do our job right,” he said, and one could almost hear the wheels turning in his mind at the delicious prospect of that matchup. “Social groups, right-to-life organizations, the Bob Jones crowd are all sitting on the sidelines, but Rudy scares them, and when a conservative alternative comes to the top, they will move there. If it’s a four-way race, 35 percent wins, and the question is where do you get it. It’s all about organizing, finding the voters, and making sure they vote. We’re trying to win the war of the activists, and we’re doing well so far.”
Asked about the Democratic race, Tompkins didn’t hesitate to pick Hillary Clinton as the likely nominee. “With Hillary we could gin up the vote, but it would be a mistake to underestimate her,” he said. “She’ll have the money and she has the best people. They are good, tough, and ruthless, and will do whatever they need to win.” One gathered that this, from Tompkins, was the highest praise.
In 1988, Time magazine ran a cover story entitled “It’s the Year of the Handlers,” which noted that more than “any other race in history, this has become a narrow-gauge contest between two disciplined teams of political professionals.” The magazine complained that the foremost goal of the campaigns of both George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was to “prevent their candidates from uttering a spontaneous thought in public,” and that “backstage puppeteers” were directing the entire race. “Something,” Time concluded, “has truly gone awry in 1988.” It was the year that Lee Atwater unleashed the infamous ad about Willie Horton, the black convict who terrorized a white couple while out on a weekend pass from a Massachusetts prison; the ad is widely credited with clinching Bush’s victory. Ever since then, the tough, savvy campaign consultant—from James Carville to Karl Rove—has become a standard character in any presidential-campaign narrative.
What has changed in the past two decades is the sheer quantity of different handlers who massage the entire electoral process from announcement to inauguration. Campaign & Elections magazine publishes an annual directory of political consultants, and the 2007 edition lists thousands of practitioners, in categories that include events planning, crisis management, direct mail, fund-raising, GOTV (Get Out the Vote), grassroots strategy, Internet, mailing and phone lists, speech training, media buying, polling, voice-over talent, and voter registration. All of this has in turn contributed to the ever-rising costs of campaigns. A study last year by the Center for Public Integrity found that political-consulting firms received combined payments of $1.85 billion for federal campaigns during the 2003–2004 election cycle.
In the case of the 2008 Romney campaign, the roster includes a host of speechwriters, among them Matt Rees, who served in the George W. Bush White House producing speeches for the president and for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Then there are the finance consultants, paid to strengthen Romney’s fund-raising effort (and thereby allow him to hire more consultants); these firms include the California-based Davis Group, which worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign and for Bush/Cheney 2000. Romney has employed a number of firms to stage his campaign events, among them Political Productions, which was paid $20,800 to help choreograph his announcement ceremony in February. The firm is headed by David Grossman, who has handled rallies for President Bush, produced and designed the 2001 inaugural parade, and helped prepare the Desert Storm victory celebration in Washington during the term of George H.W. Bush. (Political Productions is also, according to its website, “the leader in confetti services for the political production market,” and its team of professional confetti-releasers assures that a “synchronized event” will come off flawlessly “with all elements occurring on cue when and where you want. With only 20 to 30 seconds following each speech available for a headline photo opportunity or a video lead-in clip, why chance your production to anyone but the leader in political production?”)
In an especially calculated move, the Romney campaign has invested heavily in winning local straw polls around the country, which don’t necessarily measure popular support as much as organization and financial resources. Nonetheless, victory can win a news cycle’s worth of attention and hence be used to hype the candidate’s supposed popularity and momentum. In Iowa, Romney hired Nicole Schlinger, founder of Capitol Resources, Inc., a G.O.P.-event-management firm, as his straw-poll director. She helped orchestrate Romney’s triumph at the Ames Straw Poll, which was achieved by shelling out huge sums of money to buy supporters’ tickets for the event, arranging a fleet of buses to bring them in and catering a barbecue lunch to feed them, financing a direct-mail campaign, and paying fees to dozens of “super-volunteers” who promoted Romney (not to mention more than $2 million in television ads in Iowa and roughly $1 million more for organizational support, which included the $191,000 Schlinger was paid). All this bought Romney 31.5 percent of the ballots cast in Ames—4,516 voters, which means the campaign spent at least $650 per vote.
To handle opposition research, the campaign has engaged Barbara Comstock—a lawyer who worked for former Attorney General John Ashcroft—at the price of $15,000 per month. Comstock honed her skills as research director at the Republican National Committee and before that worked for the House Government Reform Committee when its head, Representative Dan Burton, was leading investigations into the Clinton-era Democratic fund-raising scandals and trying to prove that White House counsel Vince Foster did not commit suicide but was murdered. Comstock’s talents were on display this summer during an appearance on Hardball, when she essentially argued that Senator Barack Obama’s support for “age-appropriate sex education” meant that he favored educating kindergartners about masturbation and homosexuality, and possibly abortion as well. “There are more important issues that we need to be spending our money on other than kindergarten sex education and funding abortions for everybody,” Comstock said.
The list of Romney’s consultants gets longer. There is the direct-mail specialist Stephen Meyers of SCM Associates; Gary Marx, who works for Ralph Reed at Century Strategies and rounds up social-conservative support for the campaign, as he did for Bush/Cheney in 2004; pollster and focus-group guru Jan van Lohuizen, who worked for the Bush Administration; and Get Out the Vote specialist Claire Austin. Then come the hordes of local specialists hired to help Romney navigate the terrain in individual states, especially ones that loom large in the primary schedule. In Florida, the campaign hired political strategist Sara Bradshaw, who is to Governor Jeb Bush what Karl Rove was to President Bush. In New Hampshire, where fiscal conservatism is a more potent force than social conservatism, he hired as advisers moderates like Rich Killion and Tom Rath. And in South Carolina, where religious activists have the upper hand, he hired not only Sullivan and Tompkins but several other brand-name conservatives.
In seeking to woo conservatives, Romney has also used his personal PAC—the Commonwealth Political Action Committee—to contribute lavishly to several national pro-life groups, the Federalist Society, the National Review, and the Heritage Foundation, among others. In South Carolina, Romney set up a branch of the PAC all the way back in 2004. (He started branches in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Arizona at the same time.) Since then, the state branch—with guidance from a number of consulting firms, including DC Navigators, a top Washington-based group—has run up expenditures of roughly $518,000. Recipients in South Carolina include dozens of state representatives as well as Lieutenant Governor André Bauer ($3,500) and Attorney General Henry McMaster ($1,000). Romney has ladled $9,500 on the state Republican Party, $3,500 on the state Senate G.O.P. caucus, and $7,000 on the House caucus, and has sent tens of thousands of dollars in total to numerous county-level party committees.
Romney’s game plan in South Carolina depends on winning a large share of the social-conservative vote, which makes up at least a third, and perhaps even two fifths, of the state’s G.O.P. electorate. To that end, his PAC has also funded the Palmetto Family Council, which, according to its website, “works in the centers of influence (church, government, media, academia, and business) to present biblical principles through research, communication and networking.” Another $5,000 was delivered from Romney’s PAC to an organization sponsoring a statewide ballot initiative, passed in 2006, that added an amendment banning gay marriage to the state constitution. The PAC also sent money to South Carolina Citizens for Life ($500), South Carolina Club for Growth ($1,000), a school-choice group called South Carolinians for Responsible Government ($1,000), a Republican GOTV effort called South Carolina Victory ($2,000), and a group of conservative school-board candidates in Charleston ($2,000) called, humorously enough, “The A-Team.” (One pities the fool who might oppose them.) Moreover, the Romney campaign in June formed a national “faith and values steering committee” that includes four South Carolinians, among them a pastor, Mark White, and a Christian political activist, Dee Benedict. Both White and Benedict—whom Romney also put on the payroll as a consultant—are from upstate, the heart of South Carolina conservatism.
To ensure that all this goodwill gets translated into votes, Romney’s campaign has retained Drew McKissick, a former board member of the Christian Coalition and state director for the campaign to ban gay marriage. “If he [Romney] wins Iowa and New Hampshire, it puts huge pressure on the other candidates,” he told me over coffee at a Starbucks on Gervais Street, a few blocks from his office. “South Carolina becomes a fire wall for them to stop him.”
Like Romney, McKissick is perfectly groomed, with not a single hair askew. He’s worked as a consultant since 1990—his first campaign was a race for county coroner—and has arranged private meetings for Romney with Southern Baptists, charismatics, fundamentalists, and other religious conservatives. “I help the campaign with communications and messaging towards that sector of the party,” he told me. “I network with people I know around the state and help them decide who they’ll support. That’s a conversation best had in small groups. Building a campaign is like throwing a rock in the pond. There’s a big ripple and then smaller ripples outward. We’re focusing on the first few ripples—key leaders within church and community, people who have networks of influence and who other people listen to.”
McKissick helps the Romney campaign develop materials targeted to social conservatives, such as a packet, mailed to a small group of religious activists, that included a cover letter under his name. (McKissick and Terry Sullivan both told me I could get a copy of the letter but in the end declined to send it.) He also created a website, Christian Conservatives for Romney, that includes news on the campaign, Romney videos, and summaries of the governor’s positions on such issues as “abortion & life,” “traditional marriage,” “protecting our children,” and “free speech.” As laid out on the website, Romney’s position on the final item is largely confined to deploring the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, which is loathed by conservatives everywhere and has cost McCain dearly in his own extensive efforts to woo the Republican right.
Some religious voters will never see Romney as the ideal candidate, McKissick acknowledged. His goal is to make sure that those people are comfortable enough with the governor that they will turn to him in the event that their first pick—McKissick didn’t name names but was certainly thinking of Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, whose conservative credentials are far more solid than Romney’s—drops out. “There is a segment of the party that is looking for purity and is leery of anyone who might not meet that ideal standard,” he continued. “I’m trying to alleviate fears that he doesn’t measure up.”
Doubts about Romney will diminish as the campaign’s advertising kicks in, McKissick believes. “Communications is the primary purpose of any campaign. The message with this segment of the party is shared values. What values do you have that will carry forward in the campaign? That’s more important than a ten-point plan. If I know his core values, I can more or less figure out where he’ll be on the issues. That’s more important than where he goes to church on Sundays.”
If Romney retains his current lead in the polls and wins New Hampshire and Iowa, a victory in South Carolina’s primary could propel him toward the nomination. If he performs less well than expected in the two key early states, he’ll be even more desperate for a good showing here. At least through mid-September, though, Romney had failed to find his footing; despite repeated visits to South Carolina, and at least $1 million spent on advertising and organization, he remained mired in or near single digits in the polls behind Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain. He will likely rise in the polls, especially with a major TV advertising campaign planned for the fall, but the question remains how high.
The problems holding him back were all identified in the campaign’s PowerPoint presentation: the Massachusetts background, the image of slickness, the fears about his religion, and, above all, mistrust of his ideological transformation. Romney and his handlers portray him as having undergone a political conversion, but they can’t point to any convincing catalyst. There was no religious epiphany (as, for example, with George W. Bush) or political awakening (as with Ronald Reagan, a New Deal Democrat who joined the Republican Party in 1962 and backed Barry Goldwater for president two years later, which at the time was hardly a politically savvy move). With Romney, there’s merely been the recent espousal of positions diametrically opposed to his earlier ones, feeding the suspicion that his political shifts are more reflective of his ambition than of his convictions.
In Mount Pleasant, at a dockside restaurant just across the bay from Charleston, I met with Cyndi Mosteller, a social conservative who served until recently as head of her county Republican Party and before that as vice chair of the state G.O.P. I had expected her to exhibit a conservative persona that matched her politics, but Mosteller, bubbly and energetic, had hair streaked with reddish highlights and wore a sleeveless black-and-white dress with high heels. We took a window table and watched shrimp boats bobbing on the water as we talked about the race in South Carolina. She had started out as a McCain backer but opposed his views on issues like embryonic-stem-cell research and immigration, and left his campaign over the summer. Giuliani is anathema to her. “We’ve worked hard for years to hold the line on Judeo-Christian ethics, and it would be difficult for conservatives to cast our vote, which is our trust, for someone who disagrees with us,” she said.
But Mosteller (who not long afterward would declare her support for Fred Thompson) is most scornful of Romney. “It’s a question of trust,” she said. “He says all the right things, his speeches run through the litmus test on conservative issues, but there’s no conviction behind it. Authenticity means a lot in the South. You can’t run to the left up North and the right down here. I find it patronizing to my intelligence, to my conservatism, and to the South.”
By all accounts, Mitt Romney is smart and pragmatic—not at all as vacuous, that is, as he has been made to sound. The irony is that in attempting to market him to the Republican base, his handlers have created a thorough phony. The “electorate is not where it needs to be for us to succeed,” his campaign PowerPoint had concluded; hence, the strategy has been to move Romney where he needs to be to succeed. It remains to be seen how well this will play in South Carolina.
Ken Silverstein was Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine.
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