Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Mitt Romney is scheduled for a Georgia visit today, holding a fundraiser at the Georgia Aquarium. Fishing for both dollars and support among the Georgia GOP faithful, Romney is the candidate who has been in the top tier since the race was mere speculation, but has also probably received the least local press. There are, after all, two in the race with direct ties to Georgia. Others have made news for their propensity to make mistakes along the way. Romney, by contrast, has been rather smooth and steady to the point of being boring. Most of his coverage has been rather incidental in that he is contrasted against the rest of the field who are fighting for the position of being “Not Mitt”.
Romney’s supporters are just fine with this designation, and are quite happy with how their candidate is positioned both nationally and in Georgia. While many point to Romney’s poll numbers which have held steady around 25 to 30% as a sign that his support has a ceiling, they see distinct advantages to his steady nature. While others have risen and fallen from the top tier, Romney has had a dedicated core from which to build a network of organizers and raise funds with the focus on moving voters during the momentum period of the early primaries.
As for fundraising, Romney leads all others. Insiders note that he raised more money in Georgia during the third quarter than he did in the same period of his 2008 campaign when he was not competing against two who claim Georgia as their home.
Romney’s Georgia support contains significant old line GOP stalwarts including three of the four past chairmen of the eventual GOP nominee’s campaigns. Fred Cooper, Oscar Persons, and Eric Tanenblatt chaired Georgia campaigns for George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush, respectively. There is also current institutional support in the form of Attorney General Sam Olens, House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, and a host of other elected officials.
While the list contains definite “establishment” Republicans from the metro area, there are also significant endorsements from more rural parts of the state. Conservative activists Joe McCutchen and Oscar Poole, owner of the political landmark Poole’s Barbecue, have anchored Team Romney for Northwest Georgia from Ellijay.
More southern parts of the state are represented in the Romney network as well, with Keith Stone (GOP 1st district chairman), Jon Jones (Tift County GOP Chair), Jerry Loupee (Former Chatham GOP Chair) and former Dublin Mayor Robert J Walker all publicly endorsing Romney’s Georgia effort.
Romney’s Georgia organization is not lacking in support from evangelical conservatives either. Among the Romney campaigns first local advisors was consultant Mark Demoss, whose Demoss Group claims to be the nation’s “first and largest public relations agency exclusively serving Christian leaders, businesses, non-profit organizations and causes.” Activists Orit Sklar and Ruth Malhotra, both known for suing Georgia Tech in 2006 to protect the free speech of conservatives on campus, have been supporting the Romney campaign since it was formed.
While Romney’s Georgia campaign clearly has endorsements, they also believe they have the right candidate with the right message at the right time. They believe the 2012 race is about turning around the economy, and promote Romney for his past turnaround efforts. From his career at Bain Capital, Romney was a turnaround specialist for businesses. He took over a failing Salt Lake City Olympic Games effort and made it a success. His tenure as Governor of Massachusetts is also billed as a turnaround operation, one that they would like to see taken to Washington.
As for the criticism of being stuck at 25 to 30% of Republican support, Romney’s Georgia folks appear unfazed. They note that he entered the race as the best known candidate, and thus has held steady a core group of supporters. They believe that the other three quarters of Republicans are going through a process of choosing their candidate, and are looking at those they don’t know before making their decision. They will have the opportunity to get more than a good share of those still looking at other candidates.
Georgia doesn’t vote until March 6th, which gives those with strong ground operations in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida a strong chance to influence momentum before votes are cast locally. Candidates who have been able to consistently raise money and build grass roots support are best positioned to take advantage of the campaign momentum that will rapidly change the race starting with Iowa’s January 3rd caucus.
There are 9 candidates on Georgia’s primary ballot jockeying for the position to be the “Not Mitt” candidate. Romney has the agenda setting advantage to build his team in his way while being afforded the luxury of just being Mitt. By the end of his visit today, he’ll have a few more dollars and a few more supporters to help him do just that.