Mitt Romney's front-runner status in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination took a hit this week, with national polls showing that he has been eclipsed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry's quick ascent — he officially announced his candidacy only two weeks ago — has put pressure on the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist to tweak his consistent I'm-the-CEO-you've-been-waiting-for campaign theme.
But, for better or worse, race-watchers say, Romney's success in the private sector remains his most persuasive argument for why he, and not Perry or the rest of the lagging GOP field, should be the Republican who takes on President Obama next year.
"His accomplishment with Bain Capital and with helping turn around the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 are the primary strengths of his candidacy," says Dale Buss, who has written extensively about business leaders and CEO politicians.
"Given the deteriorating state of the economy, a lot of Americans are looking for economic competence, for economic understanding," Buss says.
That includes former Obama supporter Mort Zuckerman, the billionaire real estate developer and publisher, who this week bemoaned what he characterized as an economic "competency crisis" in the White House.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Thursday, Zuckerman said he longs for a "triple-A president to run a triple-A country," though he did not mention Romney.
Strategists say that if Romney veers from his CEO message to try to move to the right of the conservative Perry, an evangelical Christian and Tea Party favorite, he risks muddying the argument that he is uniquely qualified to lead during a time of national economic crisis. Because Romney's moderate past on legal abortion, gay rights, gun control and expanding health care coverage already makes him a suspect commodity with the party's base, his best bet is to stay the business leader course.
Romney, however, is discovering that his CEO personality and corporate success, including personal wealth estimated at $250 million, can present on-the-trail pitfalls and fodder for his opposition, especially in a general election.
Democrats pounced on his Iowa State Fair comment that "corporations are people." He had to weather recent reports that he plans to tear down his $12 million California beach home to build a much larger one.
He dismissed with a "no harm, no foul" comment criticisms of a secretive and short-lived political action group, founded by a former Bain colleague, that gave his campaign $1 million.
And this week, while in New Hampshire, he shushed an aggressive questioner by saying, "You're not the boss of me."
Nature Of The Business
CEO politicians like Romney, says J.P. Donlon, all have the "instinct and drive to accomplish things."
"But when you're running a corporation, everyone by definition is to be pulling in the same direction," says Donlon, editor-in-chief of Chief Executive magazine. "In politics, you have to have the patience to deal with all the conceits that politicians have to undergo and suffer through."
"Why do you think Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca didn't run?" he said, referring, respectively, to the former heads of General Electric and Chrysler who were both urged to seek political office.
"Mitt Romney, however, has already dealt with these issues for a number of campaign seasons," says Donlon.
Romney-watchers like to refer to the candidate this time around as Romney 2.0, a CEO who has learned from his political experiences — a successful run for governor in 2002 and his unsuccessful campaign for the GOP presidential nomination four years ago.
Romney founded Bain Capital with two associates in 1984. It now has nearly 400 employees, 10 offices including those in Hong Kong, Mumbai and London, and boasts that it is "one of the world's leading private, alternative asset management firms" managing about $65 billion.
Romney left Bain in 1999 to head the Salt Lake City Olympic Games Organizing committee.
Romney has been credited with rescuing the scandal-plagued Olympics, which, once mired in graft and disarray, ended up a success. In an interview with The New York Times during his last presidential run, Romney characterized the experience as preparing him for public life.
"Romney understands the basics of growth — private investment and capital formation," Donlon says. "That's what it's all about."
It's clear why Romney is running as a CEO, Donlon said: "What's most important to the country right now is to create an environment that creates jobs. As long as jobs remain the single greatest priority, he's obviously going to leverage his experience in getting the nomination."
While there have been successful CEO candidates, like three-term New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there are plenty of examples of those who have come up short — even when money was no object.
Former eBay chief Meg Whitman lost her GOP bid for governor in California last year, and ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina fell short in her effort to oust California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat, won a term in the U.S. Senate and another as governor but was ousted last year by Republican Chris Christie.
Perry has benefited, Buss says, from leading a business-friendly state but "has not had really any experience in the private sector."
One-third of jobs created nationally since 2009 have been in Texas, driven, many analysts say, by the state's oil and gas boom. Another analysis this week by the San Antonio Express-News found that government has also played a significant role in job growth in Texas, noting that 1 of every 4 jobs created since Perry became governor has been in the government sector — a stat that Perry's opponents are hoping might not go over well with small-government GOP voters.
Romney's trick as the Republican primary season approaches, Buss says, will be to rely on his business credentials while "tapping into what people are feeling about government spending — that seems to be more on their minds than antipathy toward Wall Street."
And he has to do a better job of it.
"I just don't hear him packaging what he's done [in a way] that would speak to people about the experience he brings," Buss says. "The conversation between CEOs and the government is getting increasingly important and visible."
On Thursday in New Hampshire, Romney attempted to sharpen his message, saying he would give Obama a "triple D" rating on the economy.
Former Bush administration adviser David Frum this week suggested on his website that despite Perry's surge in the national horse race polls, the Texas governor's lead is fragile, and the candidate vulnerable.
National polls before the primary season often have limited long-term predictive value. In June 2007, Hillary Clinton held a "solid lead" over Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the race for the Democratic nomination, and Rudolph Giuliani still led on the GOP side. Giuliani eventually dropped out of the race after failing to win any primary contests.
In Perry's case, Frum says, his opposition to Social Security and Medicare could pose problems.
In his book, Fed Up! published last fall, Perry posits that Social Security is unconstitutional, a "Ponzi scheme," and a failure. Last week Perry's communications director said he'd never heard Perry call Social Security unconstitutional and said that the book should not be viewed "in any way as a 2012 campaign blueprint or manifesto."
Perry's vulnerabilities, Frum asserts, "will come under intense scrutiny during his stint in the spotlight."
And that could play to Romney's advantage, if he continues to double down on his economic bona fides.
Says Buss: "It's still his to lose."