Where is the Love?

Mitt Romney is a better candidate than in 2008. So why can't he make Republican hearts flutter?

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Brooks Kraft for TIME

With Iowa's caucuses looming, Romney remains a second choice among many GOP faithful.

Among the hallowed traditions of latter-day presidential politics is the full-body agripander in the Iowa cornfields. Every four years, the local populace demands obeisance to extravagant crop and ethanol subsidies, and the presidential hopefuls inevitably respond with paeans to the family farm and renewable energy--even though such subsidies have long been shown to be boondoggles of the highest order.

And so I was interested to see how Mitt Romney would respond to a roomful of western-Iowa business folks in the thriving town of Treynor recently. In similar circumstances four years ago, Romney's agripandering had been effulgent and shameless. This time was different. Rick Schwark, an ethanol refiner, was the first of several corn-related pleaders, and he wasn't shy: "Ethanol is an American success story," he began, protesting the imminent reduction of the $6 billion subsidy his industry gets, "but there has been a lot of misinformation. Ethanol has created over 400,000 jobs."

Romney listened and answered carefully. He talked about the importance of renewable fuels. He talked about the need for energy independence. He talked about his past support for ethanol subsidies as a way to get the industry off the ground. "But I've indicated that the subsidies shouldn't go on forever," he concluded, "and this one will end in December."

He had wielded the scalpel so delicately, after so much pro-business anesthesia, that some of those in the room weren't quite sure that Romney had actually excised their beloved subsidy. Kevin Ross, the president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, tried the question once more, and Romney affably shot him down. "I'll take a close look at it, but I'm not running for office based on making promises of handing out money," he said. "I'm enough of a business guy to take a look at the books and see what's needed and what isn't." Ethanol clearly wasn't.

Twice more the subject was broached, and twice more Romney gently demurred. "That took a lot of [walnuts]," said Ward Chambers, a cardiologist with an arid sense of humor. "But he was able to deliver the bad news in a way that was palatable to the businesspeople in the room. That was very smart politics."

Those are not phrases that have often been associated with Mitt Romney in the past: smart politics and able to deliver bad news. They are still not an entirely comfortable fit, but one modification in Romney's second campaign for the presidency has been his willingness, at times, to tell Republican audiences things they don't exactly want to hear. He swaddles these disappointments in business expertise, attacks on Barack Obama (some justified, others fantasized) and a brisk, pleasant manner.

In pure political-performance terms, this has made Romney a much stronger candidate than he was four years ago. He seems to have discovered an ancient, buried truth of American politics: you gain credibility--you seem more real--if you don't try to please all of the people all of the time. As with everything else Romney does, though, courage is carefully calculated, with an eye to a general-election campaign against Obama. In these straitened times, ethanol subsidies have passed their sell-by date.

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