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In Search of Romney's Silver Lining

By Michael D. Shear
DES MOINES -- What do you say after a very costly trouncing?

After spending $238 for each of their 29,405 votes -- a reported $7 million -- you could see the disappointment on the faces of the Mitt Romney team in Iowa. The "victory" party at the Sheraton in West Des Moines was filled with people who walked around in a bit of a daze.

They were on message, though: Nothing's finished. We won the "silver." On to New Hampshire.

In a late-night briefing for reporters, Romney's unflappable spokesman, Kevin Madden, attributed Mike Huckabee's stunning victory to a surge in evangelical support. But he refused to concede the point that reporters kept peppering him with: that his boss was on the ropes.

"In the early part of the campaign, we were new," he said. When the campaign would come to Iowa in January, he said, "no one knew who Mitt Romney was. We're very proud and very excited."

Right.

But beneath the happy talk was a grim reality: the strategy that the Romney campaign had followed for the better part of three years had just gone up in smoke.

They called it the "kindling strategy." The idea was that early wins in Iowa and then New Hampshire would light a fire under Romney that none of his rivals would be able to extinguish. It was designed, top aides say, because there was no other choice for Romney -- an unknown governor with no national reputation.

For literally years, Romney made Iowa the linchpin of the strategy. He hired a team in 2004. He visited the state dozens of times even before 2007, courting local politicians, meeting with pastors and ministers, signing up volunteers. And he invested money -- lots of it.

He was the first person up on the air with costly television commercials. At the time, in the spring, aides said the expense was a necessary way to introduce Romney to Iowans -- something that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain did not have to do.

Throughout the summer, Romney languished near the bottom of national polls. But Madden and other top aides insisted that reporters focus instead on the state polls in Iowa, which, starting in May, showed Romney on top.

But like New Coke, which tested well in the labs and was a flop when it was introduced, the polls in Iowa were misleading. What they reflected was a part of the electorate which had not yet weighed in because they could not agree on a candidate: the evangelical base of the party.

Then came Huckabee. And all of a sudden, the strength that Madden had been pointing to all year long evaporated.

Madden is a veteran of political communications who used to work for embattled congressman Tom Delay. During that time, he was famous for saying that, no matter what, you have to have poise. He was the model of poise Thursday night, even as the bad news arrived in a torrent.

There were a few Romney aides Thursday night who weren't as able to put on such a happy face. Some of the younger volunteers looked positively glum, as if they'd been kicked in the gut.

But Romney communications director Matt Rhoades was all smiles.

"It's all good," he said.

But it wasn't all good. The victory party was quickly disassembled. The big "Mitt Romney" sign taken down. The advisers and reporters all gathered up for the trip to the airport, where a chartered JetBlue flight was ready to take them to New Hampshire. Once in Portsmouth, Romney spoke to about 100 people, vowing to win New Hampshire.

But no matter how hard they try to forget what happened here, the truth is that they are going to have to light a fire in New Hampshire with some very soggy wood.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 4, 2008; 7:31 AM ET
 
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