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Mitt Romney -- Where's the rest of him?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst and Michael Zuckerman, Special to CNN
December 2, 2011 -- Updated 2010 GMT (0410 HKT)
Mitt Romney applauds his wife Ann as she addresses a crowd gathered for a campaign rally at the American Polish Cultural Center on November 10 in Troy, Michigan.
Mitt Romney applauds his wife Ann as she addresses a crowd gathered for a campaign rally at the American Polish Cultural Center on November 10 in Troy, Michigan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney is losing ground to Newt Gingrich in the polls
  • Authors: Romney isn't letting his full self be revealed on campaign trail
  • They say Romney should talk about his faith and his family
  • Authors: Americans want to have a sense of a president's humanity

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen. Michael Zuckerman is his research assistant.

(CNN) -- Not long ago, many pundits agreed that the Republican nomination was Mitt Romney's to lose. Now, with one recent poll showing Gingrich up a whopping 21% over Romney among likely GOP voters nationwide (and wide leads in early states like Iowa, South Carolina and Florida), it appears the former Massachusetts governor could actually lose this thing in the next few weeks. So many are asking: What's gone wrong in Boston? And what if anything might he do?

A few weeks ago, we had an opportunity to sit down with Romney for an hour and a half and to talk with his wife Ann on behalf of Parade Magazine. This Sunday the magazine will publish edited versions of their interviews, reporting among other things that Ann talked her husband into joining this race.

The conversations also suggested ways that Romney might change strategy that would help, especially in addressing the very legitimate arguments that heavyweight journalists are making about his campaign. In the past few days, both Joe Klein of TIME and Robert Draper of the New York Times have weighed in on what's got Romney's numbers chained to Earth.

David Gergen
David Gergen

Klein casts Romney as "an unloved, forlorn frontrunner" -- "uninspiring to moderates and untrustworthy to conservatives." He notes that Romney has been consistent in a few areas (some positive, some not): his marriage, his faith, his career, his businessman ethos -- and his opacity as a candidate. And he observes that Romney's campaign has been "the least accessible presidential campaign in memory" -- enough so that Gail Collins of the New York Times recently quipped that "If we don't do something to free him up, they're going to have to start wheeling him around in a laundry hamper."

Draper comes to a similar conclusion. He quotes a senior Romney strategist as promoting an arresting analogy to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick: "Not a real good pocket guy... so don't tell him he can't roll out. Try to make him the best rollout guy that's ever played."

Draper's take is that the Romney staff is banking on letting Romney be Romney -- even if that means being a technocratic, distant, unknowable entity, "tightly contained in the business-centric pocket." It calls to mind the lede from a recent article in the British news weekly The Economist: "If David Cameron is loathed by voters but grudgingly credited with economic competence, can he win the next general election?" Substitute "Mitt Romney" for "David Cameron," and you've got the nub of the Romney strategy, in Draper's view.

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Our conversations for Parade opened a window into the private life of the candidate and possibly some insights about his campaign that may be eluding the Romney camp, as well as the voters they are trying to woo.

The first is that while it's not wrong for Romney to be his authentic, businessman self -- and he certainly is authentically that -- the distant, unemotional manager is not the whole Romney.

Talking to him, we were struck by the way he lit up. His entire countenance and body language changed when he started talking about Ann, his bride of 42 years, and their family. There are some indications that the Romney team will start playing this card soon by referencing his longstanding marriage more (ostensibly an oblique swipe at Gingrich's dodgy marital history). But if Romney wants to connect with voters -- as he must so clearly do -- he can't just show them that he's got the family man box checked on his resume.

He needs to let voters see the warmth he exudes when he discusses falling for Ann at age 19, watching his children grow up, and splashing around with his grandkids at their vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee. The cool, robotic Romney seen on the stump comes across far differently than the man in the bosom of family.

The other point against the common charge that Romney has "no core" (as White House adviser David Plouffe put it on national TV a few weeks back) is that he is clearly a man deeply grounded in his religious faith. When we spoke with Romney, he briefly discussed his time as a Mormon bishop and lay pastor, which included counseling members of the church who'd come across troubled waters financially. But his campaign has seemed eager to keep faith in the shadows, addressing it only when they absolutely must.

Draper notes the same phenomenon, pointing out that Romney "refused to be interviewed" about his counseling role, declined to assist another Times reporter on the same topic, and met Draper's questions about his time as Mormon stake president with the same silence.

This reticence is a tragedy. Romney's account of his time in the counseling role -- and the degree to which it solidified his belief that individuals need "the dignity of work" more than just a check in the mail -- was compelling, as was his admission that he regularly tithes 10% of his pretax income. For a man whose wealth is valued at between $190 million and $250 million, that's not peanuts.

The source of this reticence may be, sadly, that Mormonism is not as broadly accepted a faith as it should be. A recent Pew survey highlighted the notion that Romney's Mormon faith may cause trouble for him in the primaries, particularly with evangelical voters who make up a large share of voters in the crucial early states of Iowa and South Carolina, and 15% of whom told Pew that Romney's faith would make them less likely to support him. At the time of the Pew survey, white evangelicals were the only Christian demographic among whom Romney wasn't leading. He was third, after Cain and Gingrich.

The presidency, far more than any other office, is one where Americans want to feel a human, emotional attachment.
David Gergen, Michael Zuckerman

Romney's team reads these polls, too, and so it wouldn't be surprising if that explains their reluctance to put the candidate's life as a man of faith on display. True, faith is a private matter between a person and his God, and yes, there are risks. But, at the end of the day, if Romney wants voters to see the whole him -- heart and soul -- he could do much worse than to let voters see him as a man of faith, as we did.

He can also play an educative role by putting to rest some of this remaining uncertainty among some voters about his faith. He tried this in December 2007 with a speech seemingly modeled on JFK's famous 1960 speech to the Houston ministers discussing Catholicism, but there's been little since.

In our experience, while it's wrong to stereotype any group of people, the only stereotype that sticks on Mormons is that they build strong families, create successful businesses, and serve as outstanding citizens. Intolerance toward them because of their religion is just like intolerance toward Catholics, Jews, blacks, women, and gays: bigotry that we must put behind us.

In short, Romney must open up to show his whole person, not just the CEO who has the technocratic answers and knows how to manage, but the man so obviously anchored in family and faith. The presidency, far more than any other office, is one where Americans want to feel a human, emotional attachment. That's why so many voters rallied to Hillary Clinton when she teared up in New Hampshire in 2008. She showed her human, vulnerable side -- and that was an act of strength, not weakness.

Even if Romney adopted these suggestions in spades, of course, there is no guarantee that he will be the person to lead America out of the dark, polarized woods we find ourselves in, let alone win the nomination. Serious questions about his candidacy still remain, but he could reboot his public persona by letting voters see the rest of him.

Romney, one story goes, as a graduate student used to carry around his father's briefcase with him -- a habit the Washington Post's Michael Leahy calls "a silent tribute" in a recent piece exploring the remarkable parallels between the two men.

One of us worked alongside his father in the Nixon White House, where he served as a deeply passionate, forward-looking Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A lesson he lived out every day -- and one he bequeathed to his son -- was never be afraid to be who you are. Being who you are, Team Romney knows, is not a sure ticket to the White House. But one could do a whole lot worse.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

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