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Romney's "gifts" remark ignores his own fatal flaw

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

On a chilly late-January afternoon in 2008, Mitt Romney was engaged in yet another day of around-the-clock campaigning when he posed for a photo with a group of young African-Americans at a Martin Luther King Day parade in Jacksonville, Fla.

It was my fifth month on the trail with Romney as an embedded campaign reporter for CBS News but the first time I had seen him at an event attended by more than a few minorities.

In all likelihood, not many of those at the MLK parade voted for Romney in the Florida primary the following week, but he was nonetheless greeted warmly by just about everyone he encountered.

The teenagers with whom the former Massachusetts governor posed seemed particularly excited to meet a famous person, as one young woman cheered and draped her arm around the candidate.

"Who's got your camera though?" Romney asked as he scanned the crowd, looking for someone to snap the shot.

There was a brief pause, and then he bellowed:

"Who let the dogs out? Who?! Who?!"

The shirt-and-tie-clad candidate's outburst referenced an eight-year-old song from a one-hit wonder; it had once so saturated the airwaves that a poll conducted the previous month by Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the third most annoying song of all time.

A few of the kids in the crowd giggled nervously at Romney's non sequitur before the candidate told them, "Thanks, guys," and moved along.

A few minutes later, a baby was hoisted up for the most standard of campaign trail rituals: politician-meets-infant photo op. But Romney took the moment to make yet another outdated, and perhaps even more cringe-worthy, reference to urban pop culture.

"Hey, buddy, how you doing? What's happening?" Romney said to the African-American child. "You've got some bling-bling there, too!"

In the countless hours I spent in Romney's presence during his first White House run (and mostly from a greater distance during his second bid), I saw a man who was preternaturally upbeat, well-meaning, and kind to just about everyone he encountered, friends and strangers alike.

But I also saw a candidate who seemed by nature almost uniquely ill-equipped to appeal to the young and minority voters who ended up playing a key role in his electoral demise.

Members of the press who traveled with Romney in 2007 and early 2008 began slowly to pick up on what would become an established media narrative by the time Romney was the 2012 front-runner: The former Massachusetts governor didn't just have a difficult time relating to young and minority voters, he often came across as a walking-talking time warp from the 1950s.

On the stump, Romney frequently began declarative sentences with the word "why," and talked about how long he'd been "going steady" with his high school "sweetheart." And that persona seemed well enough suited to Republican primary electorates, which were disproportionately white and older.

The mostly gray-haired members of his crowds in Iowa, after all, were usually receptive when Romney told of a cross-country trip that took him, as a teenager, through the Hawkeye State; he said he'd noticed that the soil was particularly fertile, prompting him to say to himself at the time, "God must love Iowa."

After wrapping up the Republican nomination four years later, he toned down the hokey tales from his youth. But instead of making a concerted effort to cut into President Obama's advantages with key groups, Romney and his chief strategists seemed to bury their heads in the sand, predicating their hopes for victory on an assumption that young voters and minorities would turn out in lesser numbers than they did in 2008.

That strategy proved fatal to Romney's hopes -- and is one the next Republican nominee almost certainly will not repeat.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Romney told major campaign donors on a conference call that his loss stemmed from "gifts" Obama distributed to African-Americans, Hispanics, and young people in order to secure their votes.

Romney's comments drew immediate derision for both their tone and substance. After all, his simplistic Monday morning quarterbacking did nothing to explain why he lost by six points in the battleground state of Iowa, for example, where voters skewed disproportionately white and older than the overall electorate.

While he likely would have phrased his assessment more artfully had he known his comments would be made public, Romney's reference to Obama's success at making his case for re-election was not without merit: The president's campaign indeed relentlessly courted minorities and young people.

But in saying that his defeat was due to factors beyond his control, Romney ignored his own failure to demonstrate to these very same voting groups that he understood their unique concerns and perspectives.

Romney's overall argument was that he would make the economy better for everyone. But he steadfastly refused to take the next step and make his case on a narrower level, convincing critical demographic groups that he would specifically improve their lives and their communities.

Five days before this year's Iowa caucuses, I sat down with Romney on his campaign bus for an interview on a wide range of topics.

A passage from that interview that never made it into my story involved a question about a new poll showing him losing the Hispanic vote in a hypothetical matchup with Obama, 68 percent to 23 percent.

"How do you change perceptions among Hispanics that would make you more competitive?" I asked, interested in how he intended to fine-tune his appeal to that critical voting bloc.

Instead, Romney answered in the broadest of strokes.

"People who come here come for good jobs," he said. "My experience will demonstrate that I can create good jobs through a government that's friendly to enterprise and not the adversary of enterprise. I believe the policy of my party and my campaign will attract Hispanic voters."

I attempted to press him: "But is there anything specific that you can do to reverse that tide? I mean, those are pretty daunting numbers."

"We're so early in the process," he replied, noting that bad polls numbers can "vanish in a week."

That was his story and he was sticking to it.

In the end, exit polls show that Romney lost Hispanics by an even wider margin than had been foreseeable at the time: 71 percent to 27 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

There is little doubt that Obama's appeal among young, African-American and Hispanic voters would have been difficult for just about any Republican opponent to overcome. But Romney could have made a far more concerted effort to mitigate that inherent handicap and to demonstrate more forcefully that he wasn't writing off these groups as impossible to reach.

In the wake of a resounding defeat that many Republicans did not see coming, the GOP's emerging new leaders are already taking pains to show they understand that the next nominee will need a far different mentality.

Asked about Romney's explanation of his defeat, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did not mince words:

"I think that's absolutely wrong," he said at a press conference marking his incoming chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, according to Politico. "Two points on that: One, we have got to stop dividing the American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent. We need to go after every single vote. And, secondly, we need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American Dream, which is to be in the middle class, which is to be able to give their children an opportunity to be able to get a great education. . . . So, I absolutely reject that notion, that description. I think that's absolutely wrong."

As a 41-year-old Indian-American, Jindal's very identity is one that might be more relatable to young voters and minorities should he launch his own presidential bid in 2016.

But, more importantly, his words and the forcefulness with which he delivered them leave little doubt that he and likeminded Republicans intend to dramatically demonstrate their commitment to expanding the GOP's appeal.

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