By Dana Milbank
SARASOTA, Fla. — The best political minds at Romney headquarters have come up with an antidote to the candidate’s floundering presidential bid: “More Mitt” — putting more of him in front of more voters more often.
This is supposed to be a good thing? After watching the candidate on Florida’s Gulf Coast, I’m not convinced.
It’s true that Romney hasn’t exactly been burning up the campaign trail of late. At Romney’s event in Sarasota on Thursday, his lone public event of the day, one reporter in the traveling entourage joked that Romney isn’t running for president — he’s walking.
But voters don’t need More Mitt. They need Core Mitt: a sense of what exactly he proposes to do as president. At this late stage, just six weeks before the election, even his most ardent supporters don’t know.
Some 2,000 Floridians got a heaping portion of Mitt on Thursday afternoon — I saw two dozen of them carted off by medics after they passed out in the 90-degree heat — as they listened to him rail for nearly 20 minutes about the ills of all things Obama. Yet he failed to give these hard-bitten Republicans here in Katherine Harris country what they craved most: a reason to be for him. He offered nary a specific about what he would do as president.
In the Sarasota crowd, I spoke with Billy Murphy, a retiree holding a poster board with the hand-lettered message: “NO REDISTRIBUTION TO FREELOADERS.” Murphy, an avowed foe of Obama, will support Romney — but he does not know why. “He hasn’t really told the people yet what he’s gonna do,” Murphy said. “We need to know.” Noting Murphy’s sign, I suggested that he must, at least, agree with Romney’s criticism of the roughly 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes and expect government handouts. “I don’t know,” Murphy said, suddenly sheepish. “I’m one of the 47 percent. I’m on Social Security.”
As Romney’s difficulties mount — strained finances, weak polling, unforced errors, criticism from conservatives and moves by vulnerable Republicans to distance themselves — his advisers have been debating how to revive the campaign. Focus on jobs? Provide more specifics? Moderate his positions? Hit Obama on redistributing wealth? Go after Obama on foreign policy? Defend his “47 percent” remark? Back away from it?
Ultimately, Romney’s advisers declared that the candidate would present a more detailed agenda. But that was not in evidence in Sarasota. Instead, Romney did what he has done when in trouble in the past: He lashed out.
“Do you want four more years with 23 million people out of work or underemployed?” he asked. “Do you want four more years where incomes go down every single year? You want four more years with gasoline prices doubling? Do you want four more years with unemployment above 8 percent?”
Romney was shouting, jabbing his finger in the air. He repeatedly accused Obama of throwing “the white flag of surrender” and of changing his slogan from “yes, we can” to “no, I can’t. … He went from the president of change to the president who can’t get change.”
As for his alternative, Romney promised “five steps” to revive the economy — and then, Rick Perry-style, appeared to forget the fifth. “And number five — number five — if you want to see jobs really take off in this country, we’re going to have to the number of — all five of these things.” He then went through the list again, finally coming up with “number five is to champion small business.”
The others — such as “making sure that we have trade that works” or getting “on track to a balanced budget” — were no more specific. Neither were his vows that “jobs is my priority” and that “I will never apologize for America.”
Romney’s attacks on Obama were well received by the crowd assembled outside the Ringling Museum of Art (yes, named after the circus tycoon). Several in attendance cooled themselves with “Defeat Obama” fans, and there were the usual depictions in the crowd of Obama the socialist.
But while they were united in antipathy toward the incumbent, those in the audience I spoke with wanted the challenger to do something more than criticize Obama. They asked for more details on Medicare, national security, health care and taxes.
“He’s got to push his platform, and not get into mudslinging,” said Sue Kerzisnik of Sarasota.
She’s right. Voters don’t need More Mitt. They just need to know what he’s for.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.