By Susan Page, USA TODAY
POWELL, Ohio - Mitt Romney calls campaign attacks by President Obama and his allies "vituperative" and "vicious" and "absurd" and "sad." Also: Effective.
"I do think that the president's campaign of personal vilification and demonization probably draws some people away from me," Romney says when asked why he's no better than tied against a vulnerable incumbent.
He hopes the fall campaign, the debates and the storm-delayed Republican National Convention that opens Tuesday in Tampa will provide an effective counter. He doesn't aim to persuade voters to like him more than Obama - one of the president's big assets - but rather to trust him more to fix a fragile economy.
"I think in the final analysis, people will recognize those attacks for what they are, and they'll make a decision based on who can do a better job creating jobs and providing more take-home pay for the middle class of America," he says. "I believe I am that person."
After finishing his last rally before the convention, Romney sat down with USA TODAY in the vacant City Council chambers of this leafy Columbus suburb to discuss his convention speech Thursday, the campaign that will follow and the lessons he's learned. Not a man given to displays of emotion or self-analysis, he offers just a moment's reflection on what he's likely to feel on stage that night.
"I think my mom and dad are probably given a little time off to watch," he says with a slip of a smile as he mentions his late parents. His father, three-time Michigan governor George Romney, sought but failed to win the GOP presidential nomination himself more than four decades ago.
For Willard Mitt Romney, it has been a long journey.
The nomination is a prize he has been seeking for at least six years and through two campaigns, and he heads into the election with some enviable advantages. He is the undisputed standard bearer of a Republican cause that claims higher levels of enthusiasm and more money than Democrats. Americans prefer him over Obama when it comes to handling the economy, a pre-convention USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and they say he's more likely to be respected by foreign leaders.
Yet at this moment of triumph, Romney expresses frustration about a campaign that has raised questions about his business practices, his tax returns and his concerns about and connections to the middle class.
Republicans hope this year's campaign emulates 1980, when challenger Ronald Reagan in a late surge won over unhappy voters and ousted a vulnerable President Jimmy Carter. Democrats are more likely to see the 2004 election as the model, when a weakened President George W. Bush succeeded in painting challenger John Kerry as an unacceptable alternative.
"There are plenty of weaknesses that I have, and I acknowledge that," Romney says. "But the attacks that have come have been so misguided, have been so far off target, have been so dishonest, that they surprised me. I thought they might go after me on things that were accurate that I've done wrong, instead of absurd things."
He ticks off the examples he has in mind. "The Harry Reid attack, 'Oh, he hasn't paid taxes in 10 years.' Ridiculous," he says of an allegation that the Democratic Senate majority leader attributed to an unnamed friend. "The attack about how Romney's responsible for this woman who died ... and the vice president's comments about 'chains.' Really? The White House just keeps stepping lower and lower and lower, and the people of America know this is an important election and they deserve better than they've seen."
An ad by Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, tied Romney to a woman's death from cancer after her husband lost his job and his health insurance at a steel mill Bain Capital shuttered, a suggestion the independent group FactCheck.org called misleading. Vice President Biden, discussing GOP efforts to loosen bank regulations, warned a mixed-race audience in Virginia this month that "they're going to put y'all back in chains."
Of course, Romney and his allies have unleashed their own tough attacks on Obama.
"Gov. Romney has spent a lot of time trying to link an ad that we didn't produce to our campaign at the same time he has spent millions airing a discredited welfare reform ad," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt says when asked to respond to Romney's comments. He says the ad, which accuses Obama of moving to gut work requirements in the welfare law, attacks a more stringent policy than Romney pushed in Massachusetts.
Romney defends the welfare ads as accurate, accusing Obama of offering state waivers as a political calculation designed to "shore up his base" for the election. He denies he was trying to stoke discredited questions about Obama's birthplace when he said at a Detroit rally Friday that no one had ever asked him for his Michigan birth certificate.
"I understand some people don't think we should ever joke," Romney says, saying he was just being "human" and "spontaneous." He argues that his attacks have been based on policy while Obama has attacked him on more personal fronts. The president's team has tried "to minimize me as an individual, to make me a bad person, an unacceptable person," he says.
"Isn't it sad? Isn't it sad that the focus of the president's campaign, having been president for four years, is to try and attack the personality of the person he's running against as opposed to standing up for his record and his plan for the future? But because his record is so weak and because his plan forward is a continuation of what he's done in the past, the only thing he can do is attack me."
By the way, what were those legitimate vulnerabilities on which he had expected attacks?
"Not going to tell you," he says, chuckling. "Sorry."
Cue the marching band
With 10 weeks to go, there is no shortage of advice on what Romney needs to do now.
When the entrance opened at 6:30 a.m. Saturday to get on the Powell Village Green, supporters already were lining up for the chance to see Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, speak at a midmorning rally. The Olentangy Liberty High School marching band, resplendent in bright blue uniforms, played for a good-natured crowd the campaign estimated at more than 5,000.
A handful of protesters, boosted by a bullhorn, could be heard chanting from the street, and a small plane hired by MoveOn.org circled overhead, trailing a misspelled protest banner: "America is better then (sic) birtherism."
John Williamson, 61, can't wait for the next phase of the campaign.
"This mudslinging has got to stop," he says, saying both sides have been negative but blaming Obama for the worst of it. "After the conventions, hopefully they'll talk more about what they have for solutions," especially for the economy.
He's certain Romney will win in November, but his friend Lou Lombardo, 57, a real estate appraiser, isn't so sure. He worries that Obama's appeal to female voters and what he calls "class warfare" could work. "When I'm at an event like this, I'm confident," Lombardo says, "but when I look at the whole picture, I'm not."
Nearby, Don Hild, 75, a retired engineer and manufacturing representative, sees the election as a tossup, and one that has divided his wife from her two grown children, both Obama supporters. "We have friends we can't even talk to about politics," says Melissa Hild, 71, a retired dental hygienist. "They can't understand how we feel, and we can't understand how they feel."
If Romney wins, she worries that the tone of the campaign and the polarization of the nation's politics will make it hard for him to govern.
"He's got the smarts and he's got the business background," she says. "But once you get to Washington, nobody will cooperate."
Emmi Banner, 18, a freshman at Ohio State University and a first-time voter, says Obama has won the allegiance of many of her peers by "making promises he can't keep" and focusing on social issues.
"Somehow the Republican Party needs to get the message out about the economy and explain it in simple terms," she says.
Kathy Smith, 59, a speech therapist from Springfield, Ohio, is sold on Romney but worries he won't be able to get to the Oval Office if he doesn't seize the opportunity at the convention to forge a personal connection with voters.
"I think people don't understand about Romney," she says. "I don't think they understand about him as a person. We see the shiny, polished person who comes out on a stage. We want to see how he is - with his family, down in New Hampshire, maybe. Show us how he interacts with his wife, his sons and his grandkids. That's what we're not seeing enough of."
'A very dramatic choice'
Romney doesn't see it that way. He rejects the idea that he needs to come across as more likable - a characteristic on which Obama bested him by 23 percentage points in the USA TODAY poll. He has a lot of friends who like him just fine, he says, and the people who come to his rallies "are enthusiastic and supportive."
Impressions of him among voters may warm up through the debates and the fall campaign, he says, and his wife of 43 years, Ann Romney, will talk about a more personal side when she addresses the convention Tuesday. He's still working on his own speech, he says in the interview.
The night before, he had been reading through the acceptance address Obama delivered in Denver four years ago.
During the daytime program, he says, there will be "a series of vignettes, so people who attend the convention will get to know me a little better," but outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, only a devoted C-SPAN viewer will see them. During prime time in the evening, when the broadcast networks are carrying the proceedings and millions of Americans tune in, "we won't be talking about my life," he says. "We'll be talking about policy."
Ever the business analyst, Romney says it's more important to make a convincing argument than to put forward a charismatic persona, and that's what he aims to do. "By and large, this is a campaign about big ideas and a very dramatic choice that America is about to make," he says.
How will the next 10 weeks be different from what's gone before?
"It will be more intense," he says, "and I will make no mistakes." Then he laughs.