By GAIL COLLINS
Ever since Barack Obama won big in Iowa, Mitt Romney has been running as a “change” candidate. It is a little strange to see a guy whose party has been in power for years standing in front of a big blue “Washington is Broken” sign, but I think we have already determined that Romney is nothing if not really, really adaptable.
“I brought change, and they can only talk about change,” he says in his stump speech, citing his work as an Olympics czar (change is better parking) and businessman (change is fewer employees). He also vows to turn Washington “inside out.”
We will pause here briefly to envision what interesting trinkets would come tumbling out of the Bush Justice Department.
For a long while, Romney seemed the logical Republican nominee since he has a great résumé, a lovely family from whom he is not estranged and a ton of money. (At his campaign stops, Mitt jokingly thanks his wife for agreeing to invest so much of the family fortune on his presidential prospects. Ann Romney’s smile has begun to seem a little thin at this point.)
Unfortunately, there’s something about Romney’s perfect grooming, his malleability and his gee-whiz aura that seems to really irritate both the other candidates and the voters. “Most Americans want the next president to remind them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off,” says a Mike Huckabee ad running in Michigan. (It doesn’t tackle the follow-up question of whether most Americans would like the guy they work with to be handling nuclear proliferation.)
Mitt is making his stand in Michigan, one of the many, many states he calls home. Since Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, it’s an early test of what the Republicans are going to do if the big campaign issue is the tanking economy.
Rudy Giuliani, who has been lurking somewhere in the Everglades, emerged this week bearing a humongous tax-cut plan for corporations and investors. It showed the wisdom of the current Giuliani campaign strategy, which involves pretending that he is not really running anyplace where people actually vote.
Fred Thompson reacts stonily to any suggestion that the rich should not always get richer, and it was a real treat to watch him in New Hampshire when a debate moderator asked about a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Fred stared at him as if he’d heard a really foul obscenity, or been asked to convert to Scientology.
In the latest debate this week in South Carolina, Mitt laced into John McCain for making the rather obvious point that some of the lost Michigan jobs aren’t coming back.
“I disagree,” Romney announced firmly. “I’m going to fight for every single job in Michigan, South Carolina, every state in this country.” This called up interesting visions of Mitt the payroll-slashing businessman and Mitt the workers’ friend battling one another to the death over an imperiled tool-and-die maker. It would be sort of like “Spiderman 3,” without the weepy subplots.
McCain claims there’s not going to be a recession and that the big domestic challenge is cutting pork from the federal budget. “I saved the taxpayers $6 billion on a bogus tanker deal. I’m called the sheriff by my friends in the Senate who are appropriators,” he said in the debate. In fact, he said it twice. McCain has been sounding as if he’s on autopilot lately, and although he’s a vigorous 71, the endless electioneering has clearly been wearing on him.
Mike Huckabee’s campaign is a mixture of feelings, which are all on the side of the average working stiff, and policies, which are all on the side of the stock exchange. His sidekick, Chuck Norris, has his own stump speech that seems to blame our economic woes on “sheiks and Arabs” who “come over here, buy millions of dollars of merchandise and take it back to their homeland and don’t pay any taxes on it.”
It’s quite an assortment of Republican options. What bothers voters about Romney, as it turns out, is not his Mormonism but his inherent Mitt-ness. Fred Thompson is the Republican establishment dream candidate. (Social conservative, instinctive rich guy and he’s been a lobbyist, so he gets it.) Unfortunately, he reminds most other people of Mr. Potter, the banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Rudy’s actual problem is not that he failed to campaign enough in Iowa and New Hampshire, but that he showed up just often enough for the voters to get a sense of what he’s really like when he isn’t heroically covered in dust from a terrorist attack.
Huckabee seems to be a nice guy, but conservatives are afraid he’d break up the old evangelical-plutocrat Republican alliance and most liberals are restrained by their irrational attachment to the theory of evolution.
“I feel like Will Smith in ‘I Am Legend’ — I’m the last guy standing that’s not a zombie,” said McCain.