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Mitt Romney: Here's Why He's Failed To Catch Fire

Monday, 14 Jan 2008 | 9:52 AM ET
Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney

Given the results of the New Hampshire primary, all of us who cover politics need to be humble about our ability to diagnose the reasons for one outcome or the other. But here's a theory for why Republican Mitt Romney--notwithstanding his obvious intelligence, managerial competence, speaking ability, deep pockets and movie-star looks--has failed to take off so far in the places where it counts.

Romney lacks the faculty for determining when it is acceptable-- indeed, advantageous--to tell potential supporters things they might not want to hear.

So far, the former Massachusetts governor has stood out by his eagerness to say yes to every notable Republican constituency group. For anti-taxers, he brags of being first to sign a no-tax pledge. For social conservatives, he unapologetically touts his flip-flop to an anti-abortion stance. For national security hawks, he pledges not just to preserve the detention facility at Guantanamo but in fact to double its size.

Though each stance may be politically sensible on its own, Romney's problem is that this creates a cumulative impression of a candidate willing to say anything he thinks necessary to win votes.

I witnessed a prime example of this in Romney's town hall meeting in Bedford New Hampshire earlier last week. When I have asked aides about the say-anything issue, they respond with a prime example of Romney's willingness to stand up to GOP conservatives on education by supporting President Bush's No child Left Behind policy; some conservatives disdain NCLB as unnecessary federal intrusion in local schools.

At the town meeting, a local teacher stood up, avowed his support for Romney, but then said he thought NCLB was harming local schools. Instead of forthrightly expressing his disagreement with the teacher, Romney obscured his support for Bush's policy in a long answer in which he said that he too opposes federal control of schools.

Another example arose at last week's GOP debate in South Carolina. Romney criticized John McCain for observing that some jobs that American workers have lost in recent years won't come back. "I disagree," Romney said, vowing to fight to preserve every one.

No economists--in fact, no intelligent person who's been paying even a little attention to economic change here and around the world over the past generation--would dispute McCain's assertion that some jobs won't come back. But for all his business expertise, the one time founder of Bain Capital plainly felt unable to acknowledge that truth as he aimed for the voters of economically anxious workers.

McCain's immediate response was that he won the New Hampshire primary because he has displayed the willingness to tell voters some things they don't want to hear. His statement came off as far more credible than Romney's--which may help explain why Romney is now facing a must-win primary in Michigan to reassert his role as a force in the Republican race.

Check out the video pieces of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee who appeared separately on "Squawk Box" this morning. Romney talked about his economic plan. Huckabee talked about the issues in Tuesday's Michigan primary.

Romney Economic Plan Preview
A look ahead to his major economic speech, with Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate and CNBC's Steve Liesman
Huckabee Battles in Michigan
Key issues like the economy and jobs will be at the forefront of Tuesday's primary, with Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mike Huckabee R-AR and CNBC's Becky Quick

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.