Romney Tests Potential Campaign Themes, Plays Coy on Candidacy

Romney uses a speech in the country's poorest state to showcase his rebooted (potential) campaign.

Former Massachusetts Governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney attends an interfaith prayer service for victims of the Boston Marathon attack titled 'Healing Our City,' where President Barack Obama spoke at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on April 18, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Mitt Romney won't say for sure whether he's running for president. But in Mississippi on Wednesday night, he sure sounded like a candidate. Speaking before a packed auditorium at Mississippi State University, he took aim at Hillary Clinton, sketched out the themes of a campaign, and gave advice for the next Republican candidate—whoever it may be (wink, wink.)  "The great days of America have not ended," said Romney, ending his address with a remark that felt awfully like a campaign slogan. "They're ahead with the right leadership."

The 2012 party nominee's declaration that he is considering a third run for president has caused consternation among much of the Republican political class, who fear it's one attempt too many to be credible. In private conversation with allies, he's been marketing his third run as a recasting of his political brand, telling supporters that his campaign will be built on three planks: Poverty, foreign policy, and the middle class. Some of his proposals may prompt political blowback: In the country's poorest state, Romney suggested that along with better educational opportunities and employer incentives, promoting marriage could pull people out of poverty. "We have to make sure our government programs aren't creating incentives for people not to get married," Romney said. "And they do right now." 

His attacks on Clinton, the clear Democratic frontrunner, were designed to project Romney as the leader of his party and show the doubters that he's unafraid to take on a strong opponent. "How can Secretary Clinton provide opportunity for all if she doesn't know where jobs come from in the first place," he said.

But it isn't just his policy focus that Romney is trying to change. His address was far more personal than his campaign stump speeches three years ago, occasionally taking almost a psychoanalytic tone. Romney recounted writing “dad” on the top of his notes to keep perspective during the debates, referenced his Mormon faith (a topic largely off-limits during the last campaign), and hinted at the let-down of losing. “The day after the election, the Secret Service was gone, and the cheers were gone," he said. "I was back to driving my own car, filing my own gas tank, and buying groceries at Costco."  He urged the students to "have a life coach," "keep life in perspective," and "choose to be a hero."

After his remarks, the discussion turned more overtly political when Romney sat down for a question and answer session with MSU's Amy Tuck, the former lieutenant governor of Mississippi. Romney argued that his party needs articulate a clearer message—a piece of advice some Republicans accused him of failing to follow in the 2012 race. And he said that Republicans need to find a way to reach out to minority voters, echoing a call frequently sounded by likely presidential rival Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. When making his version of the case, Romney seemed to get tied up a bit, however. "We've got to stop thinking so much about the primary and start thinking more about making sure we have people that support us in the general election," he said. "I shouldn't say spend less time thinking about the primary. Spend time both thinking about the primary and the general election and make sure we are getting all audiences."


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