Once upon a time...maybe a dozen years ago...I was waiting for the elevator at One Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the 40-story skyscraper where our radio station used to be, before we moved into Gray Rock, the local CBS complex. The elevator doors opened, and out swept a tall, handsome man of impeccable bearing, flanked by a coterie of solicitous sycophants.
"Who's that?" I asked the lobby guard, as the man and his entourage bustled by.
"Why, that's Mr. Bain," he beamed.
"No," corrected a second guard, "that's Mr. ROMNEY."
It was, in fact, Willard Mitt Romney, the CEO of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that occupied two or three floors of offices below our studios. He was the son of former Michigan Governor George Romney (who'd been president of American Motors), and a very rich man.
The other day, I saw Mitt Romney in person for the first time since then. He came to Silicon Valley for the first public Bay Area appearance of his presidential campaign. He's been here quite a few times to raise campaign funds - something he's quite good at - but this was his initial contact with Northern California voters.
Romney spoke at a Santa Clara restaurant, holding one of his "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall meetings. It was free, and anyone could come, and a capacity crowd did. They were mostly, but not all, Republicans, and many were undecided, curious, eager to learn more about the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney has aged well. He is 60 years old, still tall and handsome, upright and trim. He's grayed at the temples, but hey, haven't we all? (Okay, I guess I haven't, but if more of my hair hadn't abandoned my head, it might be gray by now). He's still impeccably tailored and carries himself with the assurance of a man of privilege, someone who knows who he is and feels good about it. He's comfortable with people, smooth-talking, a pleasant chatter. He looks you in the eye, finds a way to relate, smiles easily, remembers your name. It's no wonder he's made a quarter of a billion dollars, and become a successful politician -- which is why I think he's being underestimated by many of the pundits, who can't look beyond his religion, and why I think he'll do a lot better in the Republican primaries than many people expect.
I've had Mitt Romney in the top spot in my GOP Power Rankings since I started posting them in June. Some are incredulous at that, pointing to his low showing in the national polls, and dismissing Romney's chances because he's a Mormon. But the man is a fundraising machine, can (and will) supplement those donations with his own fortune, has done extraordinarily well in the early debates, and has built an impressive ground operation in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He's been on television and radio for months now in the Midwest, where his name recognition is much higher than it is nationally, and the voters who have met him at bakeries, restaurants and these "town hall" meetings, like him.
Let's face it, Mitt has "it." "It" is, for better or worse, the main determinant of success in an American presidential election. Got it? You've got a chance. Don't? Forget it, you're Al Gore. Or John Kerry. Or Bob Dole. Or Michael Dukakis, Fritz Mondale or the first George Bush or Jimmy Carter when they were running for re-election (psst: "it" can wear off).
Unfortunately, most American voters base their Election Day decision on likability, not self-interest. Polls in 2000 showed a majority disagreed with George W. Bush's positions and beliefs, yet enough voted for him anyway to put him in position to "win" that election, simply because they felt more comfortable with him than with Al Gore. Americans want a leader who projects confidence and quiet strength, not intellectual arrogance, and certainly not tentativeness. For many, many years, the taller candidate has always won...although Bush broke that streak, by defeating the taller Kerry (Gore is taller than Bush too, but he got more popular votes, remember?). Most voters will never meet their president, let alone have a beer with him or her, so it's certainly silly to vote for someone you like in the abstract but whose policies will tangibly worsen your life -- but most don't ever bother to study those policies, so the beer buddy test has to suffice.
There's no doubt that getting the measure of a man, or woman, can tell you a lot about his or her character, and my votes in the past have certainly been influenced by my interactions with the candidates. John Edwards has a very firm handshake; Barack Obama is extremely bright and exudes charisma; Fred Thompson seems twitchy. Rudy Giuliani seems almost mean sometimes; John McCain is funny and has a quick, self-deprecating wit; Hillary Clinton comes across as incredibly smart, well-studied and self-assured. But I would still never vote for someone with whom I disagreed consistently on the issues, no matter how much I liked them. I am in a very fortunate position of uncommon access to these people, so it is my job to communicate what I can to those who aren't, to help them make a more educated decision. That's why you can hear every word Mitt Romney uttered in Santa Clara, under the Featured Audio section of his SovNat page (click on Mitt's button under Meet the Candidates) and also on the home page Featured Audio. He talked a lot about education, immigration, technology, the economy - mostly bread-and-butter, pocketbook issues that hit home with the Silicon Valley crowd. He uses words like "mosey on down" and "folks" and talks a lot about America, the future, greatness - always upbeat, optimistic, and folksy. I think he's going to wear very well on the voters, and I would not be that surprised to see him pop out of the early primaries and surge past Giuliani, Thompson and McCain.
We did catch him off guard a couple of times, though. Romney changes his positions the way other candidates change suits. How many of you have completely altered your thinking on fundamental social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control over the last five or ten years? Romney has. The woman who introduced him in Santa Clara enthused about how great it would be to finally have a real businessman in the White House, someone from the private sector with an MBA, sentiments Romney echoed, apparently forgetting that that also describes George W. Bush. When I asked Romney about that, he said he wasn't talking about Bush, or any of his rivals - and then proceeded to say that none of his rivals could match his Wall Street cred. We also asked him about the Blackwater scandal in Iraq, since the company's vice chairman, Cofer Black, is Romney's top campaign advisor on national security. It was the only time I saw uncertainty in his eyes. He seemed unprepared for the question, and stammered through a non-answer, about awaiting the results of the investigation into the "troubling" allegations.
Romney's nomination would be good news for Hillary Clinton, because evangelical Christians don't trust him, and conservative Republicans wouldn't be motivated to turn out for him in November. Clinton, or whomever the Democrats nominate, should prefer Romney to Fred Thompson, who might prove a more formidable general election opponent. But stand Thompson next to Romney on a stage at an Iowa county fair or a New Hampshire candidates' forum, and see who makes more voters smile and nod.
"Mit" means "with" in German. I think more and more Republicans are going to be mit Mitt, as we get closer to those first primaries.