Hit or miss, Romney takes ownership of his speeches

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns at Sugden Plaza in Naples, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

"I love the hymns," Mitt Romney told a crowd of supporters last week in Hialeah, Fla. "I love the hymns of this nation."

As he does in nearly all of his stump speeches, Romney next recited some of his favorite verses of the patriotic song "America the Beautiful."

The crowd, which had been boisterous up until that point, was subdued as the former Massachusetts governor extolled the song's unnamed "heroes" who "proved in liberating strife" that "more than self their country loved and mercy more than life."

The collective energy among those at the parking lot rally seemed to subside even further as Romney lauded the "patriot dream that sees beyond the years," and the crowd did not come to life again until he shouted down a protester with particular gusto.

Romney's recitation of "America the Beautiful" rarely, if ever, generates much reaction from the multitudes whom it is intended to rouse or inspire. And yet, the lines remain in his stump speech.

So why not try something else that might resonate a bit more?

Because, as Romney says, he loves the hymns.

"There are a lot of people who make suggestions to the governor and provide drafts to him, but the governor uses a heavy red pencil" in his speeches, said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. "Everything that he says -- whether it's at a news conference, a debate, or a formal speech -- flows from his own pen. He is ultimately his own speechwriter."

After decades of management experience, Romney has no problem delegating to his large staff most of the countless daily tasks that are part of an effective presidential operation, and he makes no attempt to run the do-it-all-yourself campaign that Newt Gingrich has largely helmed.

But speechwriting is one aspect of his presidential enterprise that Mitt Romney takes a particularly active role in.

The former governor may never be accused of challenging President Obama's oratorical prowess, but he nonetheless has full ownership of his words on the trail.

Though he is known primarily as a data-driven numbers wiz, Romney was an English major and the valedictorian of his graduating class at Brigham Young University, and penned his own 2011 political manifesto, "No Apology."

Romney's confidence in his writing ability is self-evident, and as opposed to the extemporaneous Gingrich, he is far more effective when speaking words written in advance than speaking off the cuff.

In contrast to his GOP opponents, Romney in his most high-profile addresses typically reads off of a teleprompter -- the high-tech politician's crutch that has been the butt of so many Republican jokes about Obama's frequent reliance on it.

Despite the risks of coming across as overly scripted, Romney's victory speech in New Hampshire last month received high marks from many pundits, especially when he called on his audience to "remember how special it is to be an American."

"I want you to remember what it was like to be hopeful and excited about the future, not to dread each new headline," he said that night. "I want you to remember when you spent more time dreaming about where to send your kids to college than wondering how to make it to the next paycheck."

On a day-to-day level, Romney's ability to deliver the goods in a pithy and engaging manner has improved since his first presidential run, and he has eliminated from his arsenal some of the hokiest stories and corniest jokes that just never seemed to connect with listeners.

But there have been some private rumblings within the lower ranks of his campaign that the candidate's standard stump speech -- particularly the part about hymns -- has grown stale.

When asked whether Romney might be due for a stump speech tune-up, chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens noted that the question was coming from a reporter who has had to listen to it repeatedly over several months.

"The basis of the argument in the stump speech, I think what's most important, is the reason that Mitt Romney's running," Stevens said. "If you go back to his announcement speech, it hasn't changed. So we'll talk about the same thing in different ways with fresh perspective."

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Last fall, the campaign hired two writers who have provided the foundation for Romney's written work before the candidate takes his turn at revising and refining it.

Hudson Institute fellow and former editor of Commentary magazine Gabe Schoenfeld -- whom Stevens praised as "kind of a genius" -- writes op-eds for Romney, and GOP speechwriter Lindsay Hayes drafts his major addresses.

A speechwriter for Sarah Palin during her 2008 vice presidential run, Hayes earns universal praise from Team Romney for her writing speed and an ability to provide a sharper edge to the candidate's typically staid voice.

Despite public avowals that they are taking nothing for granted, Romney aides say privately that the tone of his speeches will begin to adjust as the Republican front-runner moves closer to a direct face-off with Obama.

But until Super Tuesday, the tried and true themes that Romney has been hitting throughout the primary season will remain the same.

Hayes is currently at work drafting Romney's speech for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which the candidate will deliver in Washington next week.

Romney may or may not indulge his penchant for somber hymns at CPAC, but there is no doubt that he will offer plenty of red meat to suit the palates of the conservative activists in attendance.

"It's just not something that's going to happen tomorrow," one Romney communications aide said of the transition to a tone more crafted to independents than GOP primary voters. "If we do go up against Obama, we will have to change the campaign to gear it toward a general election race. But we've been taking it to Obama for the last nine months, and he's going to continue to take it to Obama."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.