Pignanelli: The only time I met Mitt Romney was an encounter on a South Temple sidewalk in 2001. I said hello to him, and he responded with the "Who the hell are you?" look and stepped around me. (I am not offended since my children do the same every evening.) Because of his leadership role in the 2002 Olympics, Utah is an element of his campaign — for good and bad.
When campaigning for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Romney blanketed Massachusetts with televised endorsements from Mayor Rocky Anderson. This tactic persuaded enough Democrats that Romney was a moderate Republican, acceptable to liberals like Rocky. Next year, Romney returned the favor and endorsed Rocky. Television commercials of Romney praising Rocky were aired frequently and played an instrumental part in the re-election campaign. Rocky frequently mentioned Romney in his speeches — depending upon the audience.
Earlier this year, Romney disparaged Sen. John McCain for teaming with Ted Kennedy and other Senate liberals on legislation. McCain's campaign team responded with details of Romney's relationship with Rocky. Mitt was forced to back off from similar attacks. Romney's opponents understand his coziness to Rocky is a weak spot to be utilized.
Romney possesses attractive qualities that keep him a contender in the presidential contest. As with all politicians, he has compromised and changed his policies. But even ardent supporters admit his inability to articulate understandable rationale behind these reversals. Romney needs to exercise discipline and stop overreaching (i.e., the stupid claims of hunting expertise). Republican activists, hungry for a champion, will accept his newfound conservatism if he respects their intelligence through honest explanations. But the Romney/Rocky partnership is a huge barrier in this endeavor. Romney solicited the support of Rocky. If Rocky was a quirky but quiet liberal, there would be no threat. Romney helped to re-elect the public official now demanding impeachment of President Bush — among other activities antagonistic to Republicans. Romney tries to explain his relationship with Rocky as one of respect for mayoral accomplishments. On any level, no aspect of the Anderson administration is attractive to conservatives.
Alone, this issue does not prevent Romney's nomination. However, this controversy is an additional piece to Romney's past that can only be overcome through better communications from the governor. The warm embrace between these two very different politicos is a bizarre example of political expediency.
Contrary to my assertions last week, the governor must choose a replacement for a vacant Senate seat from the list submitted by
the Central Committee. (I extend apologies to the election experts who were confounded by this interpretation of Utah law.)
Webb: Quite frequently, when two very different people are thrown together in an intense, high-stress endeavor (such as on a sports team or in a foxhole), they become fast friends, despite their differences.
Such was the case with Mitt Romney and Rocky Anderson, who teamed up to pull off the 2002 Olympic Games in spectacular fashion. Thus, it was quite natural for them to be supportive of each other's subsequent political campaigns.
But Frank is right that the Rocky association is one more negative that Romney must overcome to win the Republican nomination for president. In the bigger scheme of things, Romney's past friendship with Anderson probably isn't as big a problem as, say, dumping your wife in a news conference without her knowing about it, but that's for GOP delegates to judge.
Romney must make certain all the small negatives don't add up to something big enough to derail his campaign. In the extreme scrutiny of a presidential election, small flaws are magnified.
Romney's success in catapulting himself to the top tier of Republican presidential candidates is a remarkable feat all by itself. He is ahead of some candidates with far more political experience and national exposure.
His political experience amounts to one difficult term as governor of Massachusetts, and his national name recognition was tiny going into the presidential race. That he is even a serious contender at this point is quite amazing.
Consider the incredible national exposure that his two main competitors, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, have enjoyed. As "America's Mayor" during the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, Giuliani became known and respected by every American paying even the least bit of attention.
As a longtime senator, Vietnam War POW, and serious presidential candidate in 2000, McCain has been a media darling for decades and likewise has enjoyed enormous exposure and respect.
Even a number of second-tier candidates (like Tommy Thompson, a three-term governor of Wisconsin and Health and Human Services Cabinet member in the Bush administration), are much better known in political circles and to the voting public, than is Romney.
So in assessing Romney's chances at this point, it's important to recognize how far he's come. For good reason, he should not be underestimated. All of which will be explored in future columns.
Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. E-mail: email@example.com.