Mitt, The Incidental Candidate

WASHINGTON -- He barely speaks in his own first general-election ad. On the top floor of his Boston campaign headquarters, the most visible poster is one of his dad's. His party's leaders in Congress, the states and the lobbying world don't bow to him, or mention him much, even as they make moves that can't help but define his agenda for him. Arguably the key person in his campaign is Republican kingpin Karl Rove, but Rove doesn't work there.

And this is just the way Mitt Romney and his team like it. Romney is the incidental candidate in an incidental campaign. He's a bland, blunt instrument, but only an instrument, in a wider crusade dedicated to one goal: ousting President Barack Obama and reversing whatever policy victories he has won.

Goofy or creepy when off script, burdened by an ideologically muddled record and a penchant for privacy in his business and religious life, Romney has chosen to focus on everyone but himself and to surrender his campaign to a larger conservative effort.

The question is whether Romney's attempt at political self-abnegation will work. Will voters see him as selfless, shrewd and focused on the unglamorous task at hand? Or will they dismiss him as a weak, evasive figure with contempt for facts and a lot to hide?

So far, the answer isn't clear. Romney's likability and fundraising numbers are up, but he trails in the Electoral College projections. The consensus on the fall race: it's close.

There hasn't been a presidential campaign like Romney's in more than half a century -- since before 1960, when another Bostonian and Harvard graduate, John F. Kennedy, burst onto the scene.

In that year, television transformed politics into a contest between personal narratives and a search for the most convincing communicator. Also that year, presidential campaigns themselves -- the mechanics, the harried advisers, the closed-door dramas of decision-making -- took on Homeric public stature. The party was incidental in this saga; it was all about the Kennedys.

It's not all about Mitt; it's about everything but Mitt. It's not about his Boston campaign apparatus; it's about everything and everyone else surrounding it. As for the party, Mitt is glad to let them lead.

The strategy is reflected in his staff. They are not the kind to quote Tennyson.

Romney's campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, is a publicity-shy ninja of "oppo." If many voters concluded in 2004 that Sen. John Kerry was a French-fried, flip-flopping toff, Rhoades is the reason: He was head of "research" for the Bush-Cheney campaign that year. Stuart Stevens, Romney's top message and advertising man, is known for his penchant for attack spots.

There's no "Making of the President" or even "Game Change" aura here. One reason may be that the indirect godfather of the enterprise isn't on the premises. Karl Rove's influence lies in the accumulation of personal ties and changes in the way presidential campaigns are operated and financed.

Much of the top staff is composed of prot&eacuteg&eacutes of "The Architect." Rhoades was Rove's research aide in 2004; Stevens was a key part of the Bush advertising team in 2000 and 2004 under Rove. Romney's close friend and former gubernatorial chief of staff, Beth Myers (who is now in charge of vetting vice presidential candidates), received her start in politics working with Rove in Texas.

As the man behind the super PAC American Crossroads and its affiliate Crossroads GPS, which together are expecting to raise more than $300 million for "independent" spending, Rove may have more impact on Romney than Romney's own campaign. Federal law bars Rove and his Boston friends from talking strategy with each other. But they don't have to. They know each other's thinking and how to read the public signals.

American Crossroads will be the largest Republican-oriented super PAC and one that Rove & Co. hope will draw money and attention away from renegade operations that would drag the party off its economic message and into counterproductive attacks on religion and race.

As for GOP congressional leaders, Romney has long since tied his destiny to theirs, and far more willingly than presidential candidates generally like to do. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell engineered a day of votes on draconian GOP budget plans, Romney was happy to stress his own, only slightly less drastic plan.

He signed onto Rep. Paul Ryan's budget in the House early and has repeated his support often. Doing so gave Romney a way to ingratiate himself with conservatives who were and are suspicious of him.

Romney's speeches and interviews rarely produce news or provide much information, and rarely seem designed to do so. His May 12 speech at Liberty University was a chance to deliver a memorable moment of eloquent faith witness. Some evangelicals professed to be pleased by what he said, but it was, in fact, nothing more than an anodyne, risk-free homily on the value of service, with one line tucked in about his belief in man-woman marriage.

When he has to answer unscripted questions, the results have been so problematic so often that he now is determined to fade into the woodwork as quickly as possible. Asked to defend an earlier comment about President Obama's relationship with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Romney tried to erase himself from view. "I'm not familiar precisely with exactly what I said," Romney said, "but I stand by what I said, whatever it was." In other words, he is incidental to his own history.

Anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist depicts the Romney presidency -- if there is one -- as a kind of figurehead monarchy in which the real power will lie with Congress, and within Congress, the power will lie with tax-cutting conservatives such as Norquist.

"All we have to do is replace Obama," Norquist said in February. "We are not auditioning for Fearless Leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. We just need a president to sign this stuff."

If Romney objected to this view of his role, he didn't say so. And why would he object? In Norquist's view, the identity of the person who isn't Obama is incidental. And that seems to be Romney's point.