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 to the front in opinion polls.
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.
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.”
Such unrelenting attacks worked brilliantly for Romney against Newt Gingrich. And polling released Monday showed Romney gaining on Santorum in Michigan.
Romney further regaled a 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.”
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’s email address is dana firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.