By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — In terms of sizzle, Sen. Rob Portman makes Mitt Romney look like Lady Gaga. So when the two men shared a stage in suburban Cincinnati on Monday afternoon, the result was pure and unadulterated ennui — exactly the sentiment greeting Romney’s presidential aspirations in the Republican electorate.
“If you think,” the Ohio Republican exhorted the crowd, “we need fresh new direction and decisive leadership in the White House, then Mitt Romney is your man.”
Silence in the audience.
“If you’re looking for work or you have friends who are looking for work,” Portman went on, in monotone, “then Mitt Romney’s your man.”
“If you think government has grown too large,” the senator continued, “then Mitt Romney’s your man.”
Five more times, Portman tried the refrain, and each time it produced no reaction. He hurried through his script, straightened out his pile of index cards and called forward Romney, who gave an equally lively speech that praised, among other things, ulcer medication.
The two stolid men departed to meager applause and the strains of Kid Rock’s “Born Free” — a song with lyrics that seem to mock the tightly wound candidate:
Free, like a river raging …
Deep, like the grandest canyon,
Wild, like an untamed stallion.
If you can’t see my heart, you must be blind.
Romney’s unimproved performance on the campaign trail underscores one of the few certainties in this chaotic political year: If this is the Romney voters see, he’s doomed. So desperate are GOP faithful to avoid him that they have elevated Rick Santorum, yet another implausible opponent, to the front in opinion polls — a man who says public schools are “anachronistic,” who doubts the merits of birth control, who objects to amniocentesis, who thinks the president adheres to a “phony theology” and who doesn’t like the thought of women serving in combat.
Yet Romney is still very much in the race, because of what he’s doing away from the microphones. He has privately embraced the Machiavellian notion that it is safer to be feared than loved. As his public face has proved, there’s no chance of him being loved. But with bloodthirsty strategists backed by tens of millions of campaign and super PAC dollars, the milquetoast man on the stump has been, in his off hours, a killer.
On Monday, the Romney campaign circulated an email to reporters titled “MEET CONGRESSMAN/SENATOR RICK SANTORUM” that had a sampling of epithets for Santorum, including: “part of the problem,” “a professional politician,” “enamored of Congress — and of Washington, D.C.,” “opted against returning to Pennsylvania.” A Romney ad in Michigan attacks Santorum for the “billions in earmarks” he supported, while the Romney super PAC has an ad calling Santorum “the ultimate Washington insider” who voted repeatedly to raise the federal debt level and for “billions in waste.”
Such unrelenting attacks worked brilliantly for Romney against Newt Gingrich. And polling released Monday showed Romney gaining on Santorum in Michigan ahead of next week’s primary there, suggesting Romney’s attacks are working again.
If Romney is recovering, it certainly isn’t because of anything he’s doing in public. At his rally in Cincinnati on Monday, at Meridian Bioscience, he enjoyed all of seven seconds of applause after Portman’s request for a “warm Cincinnati welcome.” This was enough for Romney. “Wow,” said the candidate, in an open-collar oxford and jeans. What limited enthusiasm there was deteriorated into lecture-hall boredom as Romney expounded on how the Obama administration “made it more difficult for entrepreneurs and innovators to beguild — to begi — to grow and begin new enterprises, and they did that by — this is an interesting number — by increasing the rate of regulations by two and a half times.”
Romney further regaled the home crowd with his critique of the “two and a half percent excise tax” on medical devices. From there, his stream of consciousness led him to extol the virtues of a “a wonderful little product out there called Nexium.”
“There’s a product to help people with the symptoms, as you know, of indigestion or ulcers, and that product is provided by doctors to a lot of patients,” he explained, detailing a test made by Meridian that “tells people whether they have a bacteria that could be cured with an antibiotic.”
It’s unclear how such anecdotes will help Romney’s candidacy, but this campaign has clearly taught him a great deal about the importance of indigestion relief.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.