Romney Takes Analytic Approach to Campaign Chaos

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ALBION, Mich. -- Mitt Romney does not fume over lost primaries. He prefers to quiz his political team relentlessly about strategy.

He does not fret over high-stakes debates. Instead, he buries himself in briefing books. And he does not yell at aides over political miscalculations. He favors turning his frustrations inward over scolding people in public.

Mr. Romney's once inevitable-seeming march toward the Republican nomination has endured an agonizing stretch of setbacks (three losses to Rick Santorum), unexpected challenges (a close race in his home state, Michigan) and verbal mishaps (his admission that while he is not an ardent Nascar fan, he is friendly with some team owners).

So the candidate is taking refuge in what he knows best: rigorous analysis of the problem and a calm determination to execute a long-term plan.

"He just sits down and is cold and clinical and analytical," said John H. Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire and a Romney adviser who has spent hours with him on the campaign trail. "People sometimes criticize him for not being able to deliver the high rhetoric or the passionate phrase, but they ought to understand that his strength is that he's able to maintain an even keel at all times."

But political campaigns are inherently chaotic and are not always conducive to the kinds of strategies that can be displayed on PowerPoint. As Mr. Romney has learned again over the past few days, strategy hatched in a conference room can be rendered moot with a single inartful phrase on the stump, as when he told a crowd in Detroit that his wife owns a "couple of Cadillacs."  Successful campaigns tend to combine sheet music with improvisation, and Mr. Romney often seems less comfortable when he does not know which note to strike next.

In many ways, his methodical response to his lengthening challenge resembles that of the man he is trying to replace. As a candidate in the spring of 2008, President Obama undercut himself with his statement about working-class white voters and their affinity for guns and religion (not to mention his observation that his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton was "likable enough"). But he maintained  the focus on winning the delegates needed to claim his party's nomination.

Mr. Romney's wife, Ann, spoke publicly over the weekend about allowing no more debates, a playful lament that signaled some internal angst about the candidate's difficulty controlling the narrative of the campaign. But throughout his ups and downs over the last months, Mr. Romney remained, in the words of Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser, one "cool cucumber."

Mr. Romney's approach to problem solving, imbibed at the Harvard business school and refined as a management consultant, has guided him in every phase of his career. But nowhere has he struggled to impose that ethos more than on the trail.

After his losses to Mr. Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7, Mr. Romney was disappointed and upset. Michael O. Leavitt, a former governor of Utah who was traveling with him, said that for Mr. Romney, "It was: 'This has happened. Let's recalibrate. What's the new plan given the new situation?' "

"Mitt begins to inventory risk, and his instinct is to start picking them off with a plan, and I think he finds comfort in a pathway that he can see," Mr. Leavitt said. "People will bring a plan, and he will begin to pressure test it with a lot of questions, and he'll ask them in a kind of skeptical way."

Mr. Romney was headed to Georgia the day after those losses, and then on to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, and he kept to his schedule. But he did insist on adding two events in Maine on the day of the state's caucus. (He went on to win Maine).

"We pulled as many people as we could from as many different places to actually go physically to the caucuses," said an adviser, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely about internal strategy. "We moved very quickly when it became apparent that we needed a good story."

Aides searching for signs of distress from Mr. Romney find them difficult to discern, to their amazement and their puzzlement. "Weird detachment," was how one of them described it.

Tom Rath, a Romney adviser, summarized the candidate's  reactions to losses: "There's not a lot of recrimination, but obviously he feels things."

A tell-tale sign that he needs reassurance (or reinforcement) is the sudden appearance of his family by his side. His wife, known as the "Mitt-stabilizer," and his five sons strategically dispatch themselves on the trail -- both to campaign in his absence and to support him in critical moments. Perhaps tellingly, after a brief hiatus in mid-February, Mrs. Romney appeared at almost every campaign stop with him in Michigan last week.

But Mr. Romney has also been described as "solitary" and rarely travels with an entourage; his staff even tries to limit the number of people on his bus or plane to give him time to think.

"On the bus, there is never frenetic activity," said Bill Schuette, the attorney general of Michigan, who traveled with Mr. Romney last week. He said Mr. Romney "projects a calm" over his entire campaign. "The candidate sets the standard," Mr. Schuette said. "If the candidate is up there panicked, it permeates the entire organization."

Moments after he learned that he had lost the South Carolina primary to Newt Gingrich in late January, raising questions about his appeal to social conservatives, Mr. Romney was to meet with a small group of supporters at a reception in Columbia. 

Those expecting to see a flash of emotion left disappointed. He made only a passing reference to the lost primary, telling them that "tonight was not the perfect result" before delving into a detailed explanation of why he would win the next primary in Florida, according to a person who attended the session.

In conversations with worried donors and aides, he repeatedly returns to the simple math of the nomination process: he needs 1,144 delegates. The rest, he says, is background noise. 

But even Mr. Romney may have a breaking point. If he loses Michigan, the state where he was born and his father served as governor, aides said they would be girding for Mr. Romney's brand of low-key wrath.

"I think if we don't win Michigan," an adviser warned, "there's going to be a lot of tough questions asked."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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