WASHINGTON – Don’t expect Mitt Romney to spend a lot of time trying to get voters to like him this fall.
Instead, the likely Republican presidential nominee will probably rely on a ton of campaign cash and a barrage of nasty attack ads ripping into President Barack Obama for policies that Romney says aren’t helping the economy recover fast enough. Look for Romney to take a more moderate tack, too.
That’s essentially the playbook Romney followed in his last campaign against a Democrat, when he was elected Massachusetts governor in 2002.
Given how Romney has already relied heavily on key elements of that winning strategy – the biting attack ads, the imposing fundraising advantage – to pound his GOP presidential rivals, there’s little to suggest he won’t return to that strategy for the likely fight against Obama.
Ben Coes, Romney’s campaign manager in 2002, said the multimillionaire businessman won the election because he didn’t worry much about whether voters liked him. Coes said that same dynamic will apply for November’s presidential election, too.
Then and now, “voters were electing someone to clean up a mess,” said Coes, who has no role in Romney’s current campaign. “He ran as the toughest guy with the most experience to go in there and clean up a mess. ... It’s the reason he got elected in 2002, and it’s how he could get elected in 2012.”
Romney’s campaign declined to comment.
Romney swept into the governorship with an aggressive campaign that played up his image as a political outsider, played down his GOP affiliation and pounded Democratic foe Shannon O’Brien as a hapless watchdog of the state’s cash in a wave of attack ads. O’Brien was the state’s first female treasurer and a tough, seasoned campaigner.
Buoyed by the national media attention he received for turning the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City into a success, Romney returned to Massachusetts and targeted O’Brien with a pledge to “clean up the mess on Beacon Hill.”
He cast her as beholden to labor unions, lobbyists and special interests, but especially to Democrats who controlled the Legislature. Romney tapped into a deep vein of voter frustration over patronage, ethics scandals, state budget deficits, job losses and a $1 billion tax increase.
“We wanted to tie a noose around Beacon Hill and tie it around Shannon O’Brien’s neck,” Coes said.
Romney won by 5 percentage points in the Democratic-dominated state by appealing to independent voters. But his efforts to shed his image as stiff and blow-dried, which endures to this day, mostly fizzled.
He stumbled by airing a pithy TV ad in which he and his wife, Ann, spoke tenderly about their courtship on a high school prom date and their enduring love for each other. “Ann’s just good to the core,” Romney gushed. The ad also featured Romney in a bathing suit frolicking with his sons atop a raft on a lake.
“Women found it to be pandering, people in general just thought it was out of touch with their lives that are maybe not so perfect,” O’Brien said.
Romney also tried to project a regular-guy image by staging “work days” at blue-collar jobs on garbage trucks and fishing boats, but those failed, too, coming off as overly scripted.
Rob Gray, a senior Romney strategist in 2002, conceded the “work days” and the ads showcasing Romney’s marriage were “self-inflicted” wounds that preceded a slide in the polls.
But Romney got back on track by slamming O’Brien with a barrage of TV ads depicting her as a lazy basset hound “watchdog” who dozed while suited men piled bags of stolen state money into a truck emblazoned with the “Enron” label. The ads cited the state’s billions of dollars in pension fund losses, including $23 million in stock from the Houston-based energy company that collapsed in 2001. O’Brien’s husband had been a lobbyist for Enron.
O’Brien said the image was unfair and inaccurate. “But when you spend a lot of money on ads like that, it was effective,” she said.
The attacks drove the race back onto Romney’s outsider theme in the final weeks of the campaign, helping him win over independent voters, who dominate Massachusetts elections.
“During those last three weeks, Mitt really took the gloves off,” Coes said. “He put aside efforts to be likable. He was disciplined and tight and tough.”
O’Brien countered by going after Romney’s business background. Romney amassed a fortune, now estimated to be as much as $250 million, by helping found the venture capital firm Bain Capital. Her ads cited Bain’s role in laying off workers in businesses it took over, but the spots never gained much traction.
O’Brien said Romney did a good job selling himself as the turnaround guy, the successful businessman who saved the Olympics. She recalled one TV reporter asking her what it felt like to run against an “icon.”
Romney also avoided the Republican label, pitching himself in the heavily Democratic state as a successful businessman capable of solving its fiscal woes. His moderate tack was a nod to demographics. Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 3-to-1 in Massachusetts and roughly half of voters are independent.
“I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive,” Romney told New England Cable News in 2002.
His political success that year was forged in hard-won lessons from his first foray into politics, a 17-point loss in 1994 to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Many thought Kennedy would be vulnerable given his hard-partying image and the 1991 Palm Beach, Fla., rape case against his nephew, William Kennedy Smith. Smith was acquitted, but Kennedy testified about taking his nephew and son Patrick for drinks at the bar where Smith met his accuser.
Romney hit Kennedy as a big-government liberal and avoided personal attacks.
But Romney’s candidacy withered under a barrage of attack ads that cast him as a greedy venture capitalist whose firm cut jobs and slashed salaries at companies it took over. Angry workers from an Indiana plant even trekked to Massachusetts to dog Romney, who never quite recovered from the negative onslaught.
Kennedy outspent Romney, pouring much of his money into attack ads.
“For Romney, it was a costly learning experience, but it was a learning experience,” said Tad Devine, a senior Kennedy adviser.
Romney made sure he had the money advantage in 2002. He raised $9.4 million, including some $6.3 million from his own pocket, and spent much of it on attack ads. O’Brien spent about $6.2 million on her campaign.
“Kennedy pounded him pretty good with the attack ads, and Mitt learned: Do it early, spend as much money as you can and keep it up for as long as you can,” said O’Brien.