Doyle McManus: For Romney, election hinges on middle class

09/01/2012 12:00 AM

09/01/2012 7:14 AM

The conventional wisdom was that this week’s Republican National Convention needed to make Mitt Romney more “likable” – to replace his image as a frosty millionaire with the warmer (and, friends say, more accurate) picture of a family man, devout Mormon and private do-gooder.

And, yes, the convention began with biographical tributes, testimonials to Mitt the mensch and an appealing speech from the candidate’s appealing wife, Ann Romney, who said: “You can trust Mitt.… He will take us to a better place.”

But likability isn’t Romney’s real problem. If likability were a necessary part of electability, Richard M. Nixon wouldn’t have won two presidential elections.

Instead, what Romney needs to do is convince struggling middle-class voters that he will address their needs more effectively than President Obama has.

Romney’s advisers were heartened this week by polls showing their candidate running even with Obama, even before the three-day infomercial of the convention. The same polls show him winning on the key question of which candidate voters trust more to fix the economy.

But there’s also a poll number that’s a headache for Romney: the one showing that most voters think his policies as president would favor the wealthy. For Obama, the numbers are reversed: Most voters said his policies favor the middle class.

Since almost 90 percent of Americans consider themselves members of the middle class, that’s a problem for Romney, one far more serious than the silly issue of likability.

The retooling of the Romney message began several weeks ago, when the candidate boiled his 59-point “Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth” down to a five-point “Plan for a Stronger Middle Class.” The proposals were the same, but the emphasis was different: more about help for small businesses, less about tax cuts.

Middle-Class Mitt faces several obstacles, however.

For one thing, Obama and his campaign claimed the territory first. The president has been relentless in wrapping the words “middle class” around his programs – and in portraying Romney as the kind of businessman who eliminates jobs more often than he creates them.

Romney’s policies often sound – to many voters, anyway – aimed at helping job creators more than job holders. His tax plan’s centerpiece, for example, is a reduction in all income-tax rates by 20 percent, a change that would benefit high-income, high-tax households most. Critics charge that a cut that deep would require eliminating middle-class tax breaks like the mortgage-interest deduction; Romney says he would protect the middle class, but he hasn’t spelled out how. Meanwhile, his plan also eliminates several tax breaks for the working poor; in some cases, their tax bills would go up as everyone else’s went down.

Romney has sometimes sounded as if he were still stuck in the GOP primaries, describing his economic plan as a quest for economic freedom (whose benefits conservatives take as self-evident) rather than a step-by-step program to revive the economy. But voters who believe that tax cuts are the best way to spur growth already have made up their minds. Romney needs a few more undecided voters, the ones without strong views on economic theory, if he is to win.

And, of course, Romney has to sound as if he means it. For a candidate who has long faced charges that he flip-flops, another retooling won’t be risk-free.

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