Lehigh Acres, Fla.
"Do you realize that one-quarter of all foreclosed homes in America are in Florida?” Mitt Romney asked the crowd gathered in the front yard of one such home outside of Fort Myers.
“We know! We know!” a woman yelled back.
“Housing has become a mess in large measure because government got in the middle of it,” Romney said, before politely smacking “influence peddler” Newt Gingrich for taking on the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac as a client. Romney then argued that the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill signed into law by President Obama had made the housing mess even worse.
The Freddie Mac attack—re-launched by Romney at the debate in Tampa two days after Gingrich’s South Carolina victory and reinforced by a barrage of TV ads—appeared to be successful in tearing Gingrich down. But even as Romney was regaining his lead in the Florida polls, there was a potentially troubling sign for the former governor: His events were drawing mere hundreds of voters, while thousands were showing up to Gingrich rallies.
Romney’s professional and poised demeanor has served him well during the debates. But on the campaign trail, he struggles at times to connect with voters. Among the small number who came out to see Romney, many said they were voting against the other candidates as much as they were voting for him.
“I think he’s more stable,” said Joe Vetrano of Fort Myers. “The other guy is more of a loose cannon.” Vetrano decided during the January 23 debate to back Romney. “I think he put Newt Gingrich on the run, and you can see in Newt Gingrich’s face when [Romney] was talking about lobbying—you could see it, a weakness coming over Newt’s face.”
“It’s the lesser of the evils,” said Steve Elcock of his support for Romney. Elcock, a resident of Port Charlotte, immigrated to the United States from Grenada as a child. “Reagan freed us from socialism,” he said. “I’ve loved Republicans ever since.” But it was Elcock’s dislike of the other candidates that led him to Romney. “Newt Gingrich lost my vote when he said he wanted black people to demand paychecks and not welfare checks. So he got the X. And Santorum said he wants black people to earn their own money and not demand other people’s money. So that left me with Mitt Romney.”
Romney definitely endeared himself to some voters as he signed baseballs, held a baby, and even let a woman’s Yorkshire terrier lick his chin after his speech in Lehigh Acres. But his occasional stiffness was on display. “Love the Kid Rock song,” one voter said to Romney as music blared in the background. “You know who that song is, huh?” Romney replied. “You know Kid Rock? That’s what that is. That’s what you’re listening to.”
As Romney worked his way down the ropeline, he met a voter who said he was unemployed. “We’ll get you back to work,” Romney said. He shook the voter’s hand, thanked him for his support, and quickly moved on without asking the man about his family, or how long he’d been out of work, or where he had been employed.
Attacks over Romney’s wealth have increased in the past two weeks as his opponents probed his record at Bain Capital and his tax returns. And he’s still figuring out how to respond.
“Governor, how much money do you have?” Univision host Jorge Ramos bluntly asked Romney at a candidates’ forum in Miami.
“Well, you tell me and I’ll tell you—I’m kidding,” Romney replied, with a characteristic Romney chuckle. He said he’d already released an estimate, but Ramos wanted specifics. “Two hundred and fifty million?” he asked. “It’s between 150 and 200-some-odd million dollars,” Romney finally replied. “And, by the way, I didn’t inherit that money.”
While his opponents try to paint him as a plutocrat, Romney tries to counter by portraying himself as a champion of everyday American workers. “I know what it takes to make America the most attractive place for jobs again,” he said. “I want to do that not because I’m worried about the 1 percent. The 1 percent’s doing fine. I want to help the 99 percent. I want to help middle Americans get jobs that pay good wages.”
In Miami, Romney matter-of-factly defended his tax rate. “One of the reasons we have a lower tax rate on capital gains is because capital gains are also being taxed at the corporate level. So as businesses earn profits—that’s taxed at 35 percent. Then as they distribute those profits in dividends, that’s taxed at 15 percent more. So all total the tax rate is really closer to 45 or 50 percent,” he said. And then he pivoted to his tax plan to help the 99 percent. “I have a proposal for those in middle income. Anyone earning under $200,000 a year, I would propose pay no tax whatsoever on their savings. I think the people who have been most hurt in the Obama economy should be able to save money tax-free.” Of course, for most middle-income Americans their savings—that is, their retirement plans—are already untaxed.
It’s not just Romney’s record in Massachusetts or his personality that is leaving many voters lukewarm. Some of his policies seem timid. Enough Republican voters may find Romney to be the best of the lot, but the lack of enthusiasm among his supporters could complicate his plans to lock up the nomination and take the White House.
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.