How Romney leads from behind on the stump: surrogates with more charisma than the candidate

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

LAS VEGAS—Mitt Romney's stump speech, absent a tweak here and there at the top of his remarks, is virtually the same everyday, right down to the closing meditation on his unwavering love for the nation's patriotic hymns.

"I love the hymns," Romney has said at virtually every campaign stop throughout the early primary states. "'America the Beautiful' is one of my favorites. 'Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain' ... There's another verse I love: 'Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than strife.'"

The pack of reporters who follow him on the campaign trail know Romney's speech almost as well as the candidate himself does. His riff on the hymns is often the signal to start packing up our gear in order to observe Romney in a rare unscripted moment: a meet-and-greet with voters along a rope line.

Yet as Romney seems to go out of his way to play it safe--and even bland--he has often been joined on the trail by a supporter with a more electrifying presence.

The most recent instance took place Thursday, when Romney's tightly controlled campaign allowed itself to enter the sphere of Donald Trump, who endorsed Romney at a press conference in Las Vegas. Only, Trump didn't wait to talk up his endorsement, as the Romney staff had planned.

Nearly two hours before he and Romney were scheduled to go before TV cameras in a ballroom just off an ornate, gold-plated lobby at his hotel off the Las Vegas strip, Trump wandered in to chat up reporters and announce his backing of Romney.

Then, a few minutes later, Trump held yet another small media gaggle—this one outside a gift shop in the hotel lobby where he had been spotted simply wandering around. "I like Mitt Romney," he declared as reporters sprinted through the lobby to capture the moment on their cameras for posterity.

Another memorable example occurred in January, when Romney stood by as Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, took on a group of Occupy protesters in Exeter, N.H., who had interrupted a Romney rally.

Romney rarely engages protesters, waiting as supporters shout them down or security escorts them out. But Christie seemed to relish the fight.

"Oh really," Christie sarcastically said, as protestors began to chant "Christie kills jobs!" and "Mitt kills jobs!"

"Somebody's going down tonight, but it ain't going to be jobs, sweetheart," Christie declared, prompting the gymnasium full of Republicans to go wild.

(At an event in Iowa where Christie stumped with Romney, at least one supporter shouted "Christie for president!")

Romney has routinely been joined on the trail by supporters whose ease on the stump casts on unfavorable light on Romney's difficulty connecting with voters.

Just a week ago, in Pensacola, Romney was nearly overshadowed by two key surrogates—the actor Jon Voight and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who essentially delivered a stand-up routine of jokes he's been telling on the trail for years.

Among other things, McCain joked about Zsa Zsa Gabor's sex life, as Romney stood awkwardly by, a smile frozen on his face.

Noting the other dignitaries on hand, McCain said, "I feel a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth husband. I know what I'm supposed to do, but I don't know how to make it interesting."

In New Hampshire and South Carolina, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ended his presidential bid last August, spoke as a politician who seemed relieved to be free of consultant-tested stump speeches. He joked about his short bid for the presidency, saying no one should feel sorry for NBA star Kris Humphries, who is in the process of divorcing reality star Kim Kardashian.

"I mean, his marriage lasted longer than my presidential campaign," Pawlenty said.

On stage at a Romney rally in Charleston last month, Pawlenty sounded less like a surrogate and more like a candidate as he told voters of seeing his father lose his job as a truck driver for a meatpacking plant in Minnesota.

Also on hand was John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, who took the stage and called Pawlenty his "hero," with Romney standing nearby.

And when Romney and Trump finally went before the cameras on Thursday, the faces of the candidate and his wife, Ann, occasionally betrayed a hint of nervousness. Would Trump say something to embarrass the Romneys?

In the end, the answer was no. Trump was on unusually good behavior during the brief, seven-minute event. "It's my honor, real honor, to endorse Mitt Romney," Trump said, praising Romney as "tough" and "smart."

As Trump moved aside to allow Romney time at the microphone, the candidate looked relieved.

"There are some things that you can't imagine happening in your life," Romney said. "And this is one of them."

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