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SALT LAKE CITY — John F. Harris, editor in chief and co-founder of Politico, was in Utah Tuesday speaking at Westminster College on politics and the 2012 presidential election.
Harris has been a political reporter for more than two decades and covered the President Bill Clinton White House from 1995 to 2001, leading to publication of the book he co-authored with Mark Halperin of ABC News, "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008."
Harris is tracking the current presidential race and offered the following perspective on GOP hopeful Mitt Romney:
Q: How do you see the GOP race for president, at this point?
A: I see Mitt Romney is in command of this race, in that he’s by far the most likely person to be the Republican nominee and I don’t see any of his opponents having a plausible path toward the nomination. He’s in tenuous, very tentative command of the race. He’s not striving toward the nomination; he’s limping to it. Romney’s had some big victories, but then they’ve been followed by big defeats.
Q: Why is Romney having such a hard time sealing the deal?
A: The Republican Party is in a very unsettled state and Mitt Romney has some real weaknesses personally, as a candidate. And I’d say so far he’s at risk for being more defined by those weaknesses than by his strengths. The most activated, engaged people in the Republican Party just are uncomfortable with him. … He hasn’t broken 50 percent in most of these primaries. So most people don’t want to embrace Romney. Mitt Romney is obviously an impressive guy, with a very impressive public career, as people in Utah well know. But he has not so far been able to connect at the human level with Republican voters. He seems kind of distant and removed in a way that recalls two Democrats to my mind, John Kerry and Al Gore.
Q: Why don't some of the other candidates, who have struggled to win primaries, drop out?
A: They know that he (Romney) hasn’t closed the deal. And as long as he hasn’t closed the deal, they’re feeling, ‘Why should I drop out?’ I think Newt Gingrich would really like to come out of this race as an elder statesman of the party, who’s the most important intellectual anchor of the party. Rick Santorum would like to come out of this race having real claim on the affection of social conservatives. Santorum and Gingrich, and to some extent, Ron Paul, look for targets of opportunity, ‘I can do well in this or that state.’ In general, Romney’s playing in every state.
Q: Is Mitt Romney's LDS faith hurting him with GOP voters?
A: My own belief, I tend to think it’s a minor issue. Americans come from all different kinds of faiths and I think there’s a general understanding that criticizing somebody or deciding that somebody is not appropriate for higher office based on his or her religion, to me, runs very counter to American values. I happen to think most voters believe that.
Q: What are some of his biggest challenges to winning?
A: Romney has not succeeded in establishing a human connection sufficiently with voters. There’s not a sense of excitement about his personal story. … Barack Obama did succeed in crafting a narrative of who he was, what his life story was, what his values are. That was a potent asset. It was his most powerful asset. People were voting for the story of Barack Obama in addition for his particular positions. If Mitt Romney becomes the nominee, his first order of business, it seems to me, is regaining control of his narrative. Here’s who I am, here’s my life story, here’s why this should matter to you.
Q: What impact is the rise of Super PACs having on the race and politics in the U.S.?
A: It is harder to track (the money) and it’s not as accountable. The rise of Super PACs has made it harder to track the money and even more diminished accountability because we’ve got Super PACs who are clearly advocating for particular candidates.