Can Romney 4.0 Stage a Turnaround?

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Danny Wilcox Frazier / Redux for TIME

U.S. presidential contender Mitt Romney

Last night, Mitt Romney ended his final rally in New Hampshire with, finally, a rallying cry: "You're so wonderful! You're so wonderful!" he told the crowd as it chanted his name. "Let's go out there and win this one!"

In the days since his defeat in the Iowa caucuses, Romney has mostly refrained from such confident predictions or prescriptions. Sticking with his newly prominent Olympics metaphor, he's told crowds and correspondents, "We're going to get the gold — or maybe the silver." His early-evening boast could be a sign of renewed confidence, or a sign that the campaign has determined that confidence is what the people want. With Mitt Romney's campaign, it's hard to tell.

And yet his talent for customer service, for treating a campaign like market research, may be the one of the things that keeps his candidacy alive. At an "Ask Mitt Anything" event in Salem, one undecided voter came to hear Romney with a pencil in hand. Bob Gibbs, a small business owner in town, scribbled as the candidate spoke: "Domestic oil field...bold military...end illegals...McCain cancel tax cut" [this underlined] ... "strengthen family." By the time Romney took his last question (something about "men's rights" — a visibly uncomfortable Romney wrapped it up quickly), Gibbs was convinced. "Oh, yeah," he said, "I'm going to vote for Romney." Asked why, he consulted his notes.

Gibbs represents the kind of voter that Romney has always appealed to, and the kind of voter Romney targeted back in February, with an announcement speech that extolled "innovation and transformation" (synonyms for change!) and used the metaphor of a laboratory to exemplify the kind of technocratic, rational approach he would bring to the presidency. That was Romney 1.0. Unfortunately, we're now at Romney 4.0, which sounds a lot like the first version, but since February, the Romneytron has cycled through such incarnations as Romney the Reaganite, Romney the social conservative, and Romney the hunter of varmints, large and small. These shifts have given voters enough pause to allow John McCain, whose message of maverick muscle and gritty experience hasn't changed since he watched fishes crawl from the sea and begin to walk on land, to gain a precarious lead in the Granite State.

Observers inside the Republican campaign say that Romney is finally campaigning as the candidate he really is: the problem-solver and turnaround artist that governed Massachusetts with an almost scientific approach to bipartisanship. He's added to that message the anxiety-producing thought of Barack Obama gaining the Democratic nomination. "I can post up against Barack Obama," he told the group in Salem. "I can make sure the message of change works for Republicans as well as Democrats."

And while that message will undoubtedly resonate among practical conservatives, it is a dry sort of motivation in an election season that has produced at least two mouth-watering narratives of triumph: The historic rise of Obama, and the smaller, but still dramatic, tale of McCain's recovery from near-political death. Thus, as voters cast their ballots today, the Romney campaign must look past a mere tweak of message and hope that the bitter sniping of the last two debates and their intensely negative attacks on McCain will nudge moderate Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary and encourage conservative Republicans to look at second-tier candidates instead of McCain, if they choose not to vote for Romney.

"Their only hope is to take away votes from McCain," says one Republican strategist. "They don't need to convince people to vote for Mitt Romney, they just need to make sure McCain doesn't get any help from independents and that hard-core conservatives cast some kind of anti-McCain protest vote." If Romney can eke out a close second, he heads to the primary in Michigan — his family's home state, where his father was governor — in a position to finally overtake McCain, probably finishing off that cash-strapped campaign for good. If Romney loses New Hampshire by a large margin, he has the money to continue on for as long as he likes, through Michigan, South Carolina and beyond, but he will probably do so as a dead man walking.

For this strategy to work, the Romney campaign has to moderate its public statements about McCain, whom they've tried to paint as a dangerous threat to "true" conservative values. They can't get bogged down in the mudpit they created. Kevin Madden, Romney's national spokesman, spoke of McCain last night with uncharacteristic generosity, lauding his independent style and allowing, "there's universal respect in the Republican Party for him."

While Republican voters decide among what polls continue to tell us is the least appealing field in a generation, Romney himself campaigns with trademark discipline and ferocious energy. Asked in Bedford how he managed to keep up such a grueling pace, Romney said that persistence and determination were Romney family traits, along with a tendency to "get a little boisterous." "There's an old family saying," he said, "If a Romney drowns in a river, look for the body upstream." Which, in this case, might be Michigan.