By Chas Sisk | | The Tennessean
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam first met Mitt Romney six years ago, when the Republican presidential nominee was weighing his first run for the White House.
Haslam says he was impressed off the bat with the former Massachusetts governor, business executive and Olympic organizer. Romney appeared to have the right experience, the right skills, the right mindset to lead the nation.
Haslam stands by his initial judgment. But he says Romney has been less successful at getting those attributes across to the American voter.
"He has a temperament that is more suited to leading and governing than it is to campaigning," Haslam said in an interview with The Tennessean. "His skills are more on the analytical side. Analytical skill sets don't really help you on the day to day of campaigning, but they really help you in running something as big as the United States of America."
With the economy weak and Washington divided, Romney has hitched his campaign to his background, presenting himself as a bastion of competence in a struggling nation.
His campaign, however, has stumbled often, allowing President Barack Obama to maintain and perhaps pad his lead in the polls as the election draws near. The Romney campaign is hoping he reversed some of that momentum with his well-regarded performance in Wednesday night's debate.
If the GOP standard-bearer does pull out a come-from-behind win, it will demonstrate that, in the 2012 economy, his message that business acumen trumps soaring rhetoric had finally caught on with voters.
Few Tennesseans have gotten to meet Romney personally. The GOP nominee did not campaign much in the state in 2008, and he probably won't do so between now and Election Day.
But he has made a point of courting the state's Republican leadership, bringing on board Haslam, his powerful political family and a healthy portion of Tennessee's lawmakers and top fundraisers. He has visited the Nashville area during the current election cycle for at least three private fundraisers, though none included any public events.
Romney's efforts have given Haslam and other Republican leaders a rare chance to get to know him. And one on one, the governor says, the nominee presents himself much as he does in public -- as a no-nonsense, data-driven businessman more interested in addressing problems than in politics.
Comment takes toll
The private Romney was most famously displayed during the secretly video-recorded May fundraiser in which he described "47 percent" of voters as people who see themselves as victims "who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."
In his remarks, Romney referred to this group as committed Obama voters, people who receive government benefit payments and households that did not owe federal income taxes in 2011.
In reality, those three groups are roughly the same size, but they do not overlap perfectly. They draw in people as varied as senior citizens receiving Social Security payments, working families that make too little money to owe taxes and some middle- and upper-class households with a long list of deductions.
The remarks were released at a time when Romney was hoping to reset his campaign and reverse the bounce Democrats received coming out of their convention in Charlotte, N.C. Instead, polls have generally shown Obama maintaining or building on his lead, including in battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida.
Romney has said he did not mean to write off anybody. He said his statement was meant to offer a frank assessment of the size of Obama's political base.
Haslam echoed Romney's explanation.
"I think it's been portrayed as, 'There's 47 percent of America that I don't care about,' which is not at all what his point was," Haslam said. "I think his point was, 'There's 47 percent of Americans -- it's going to be really, really hard for me to get their vote.
"Did he say that in as clear a way as he'd like? No. But I'll also say this: Being out there in a campaign, and being out there talking as much as you -- at fundraisers, at rallies, at debates -- it really is an extraordinarily difficult situation. ... I think it's more important that we judge folks on what they have actually done."
Haslam points to Romney's resume as evidence of his capability: an investor in companies such as Staples, Bright Horizons and the Sports Authority; a Republican governor of one of the nation's most Democratic states; a turnaround artist who helped organize the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
None of those three jobs alone would demonstrate he has the skills to be president. But combining them, Haslam said, gives Romney a unique range of experiences.
His business success shows he can make hard decisions based on dollars and cents, Haslam said. His political experience shows he can balance diverse points of view to make effective policy. And his time as an Olympic organizer shows he can step into a tough situation and bring about changes.
Pitch not unique
Romney's pitch to the voters is not unique for a presidential candidate, said Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. George H. W. Bush and Dwight D. Eisenhower were seen as better at governing than campaigning.
But voters may have already been predisposed to vote for those two Republicans. As vice president under Ronald Reagan, Bush could present himself as continuing the popular president's administration. Eisenhower had his record as commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II.
A closer parallel may be Thomas Dewey, the New York governor who attempted to unseat President Harry Truman in 1948. Dewey lost a tight race.
"Most of our presidents have been people who have been quite good campaigners," Schwartz said. "The lesson is not really a good one for Romney on that score."
Romney has made up for some of his weakness as a campaigner by building an extensive political organization. He began to announce the support of top Tennessee Republicans more than a year before the 2012 election, when most of his rivals in the GOP primary were still trying to pull their campaigns together.
For Haslam, the sale was fairly easy. He had supported Romney's bid for the Republican nomination in 2008.
Their relationship goes back two years before that, when Haslam came out to the Knoxville airport to meet with Romney during a stopover. The city's mayor at the time, Haslam recalled their conversation as centering on an issue that was only then appearing on the horizon -- the nation's growing fiscal deficit.
"We have to have somebody who's willing to come in and address that," Haslam said. "When people come to see you about supporting them -- whether they're coming to see you as a city councilor or governor or president -- the core thing that I try to find out is, 'Why are you doing this? Why do you want to go through the pain of it?' "
Romney's political path has followed a trajectory similar to Haslam's career. Both began in the business world before moving into executive positions in government.
Haslam said business experience has prepared him -- and Romney, too -- for the job of managing public finances economically.
Haslam conceded that the business management approach to government has its limits. Corporate executives have broad discretion to manage their businesses. If they want to trim payroll, they can lay off workers without fear of further consequences.
But mayors and governors have to answer to city councils, legislatures and, ultimately, voters who can oust them if they don't like their decisions.
"I think that's why business sometimes gets frustrated with government," Haslam said. "It's easier to make those hard calls because the power grid is a lot smaller. You have a board meeting, you make a decision, and it's a lot easier to get to that decision."
Haslam said Romney's other experience balances that tendency out. As a Republican governor of Massachusetts, he had to work with Democrats to pass his legislative priorities, including the state's mandatory health insurance law. As lead organizer of the Salt Lake City Olympics, he had to bend to the demands of outside groups.
"He couldn't run the Olympics like you would run your business. You just can't. There's just too many different points of power," Haslam said.
"Certain people are better suited to govern than to campaign. He's not a backslapper, or whatever phrase you want to use."
Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or email@example.com.