By Political Director
updated 2/22/2007 4:13:20 PM ET 2007-02-22T21:13:20
ON THE TRAIL

"Who am I? Why am I here?" is one of the 10 most memorable debate lines in modern presidential campaign history. The line, of course, was uttered by the late Adm. James Stockdale at the ’92 vice presidential debate, where Stockdale tried to reassure the country that Ross Perot’s (I) important first decision wasn't a bad one.

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While funny at the time, the line turned out to be the beginning of the end (a second time) for the Perot campaign, because Stockdale did nothing to reassure anyone of Perot's capacity to be the leader of the free world.

The quote itself is one I always like to apply to presidential candidates: Who are they? Why are they here?

A successful presidential campaign needs two simple things — a dynamic candidate who can relate to the American people and a message that fits the times. The most successful candidates are able to blend their persona and message together in order to become the right candidate at the right time (e.g. Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992). In other years, their messages or personas would have been problems; instead, they became the core strengths for their successful bids.

Two candidates this cycle seem so intent on answering the second question — why are they here — that they’ve made the first question much more difficult for the average voter to understand.

Both John Edwards (D) and Mitt Romney (R) have been going through political evolutions that seem to make perfect political sense but just haven't felt right so far, at least to those covering the campaign. Frankly, if the media filter isn't buying the change, the voters might not, either.

Edwards and Romney have a lot in common. They rose to national prominence due in part to their good looks, ability to communicate and electoral success in states where their respective parties have struggled (North Carolina and Massachusetts). Both have had relatively little electoral experience and have used their previous successes in business and law to fill in the blanks.

The problem for both is that as they try to become perfect ideological creatures in order to win their primaries, they are damaging the personas that gave them national stardom in the first place.

Edwards' evolution has been a bit more subtle than Romney's. His shift on the war has been no different from that of many Democrats who now regret voting for the 2002 authorization. But it's on the other issues where Edwards is having authenticity problems. Compare his tax cut rhetoric and incrementalist approach to health care as a North Carolina senator to his positions on those issues now.

When he entered the political arena in 1998, Edwards seemed to style himself as a Democrat who could make conservatives comfortable. It's not that he was a died-in-the-wool Lieberman-DLC-centrist, but rhetorically, he didn't seem to mind being mistaken for one. Even in 2002 and in 2003, he was selling his persona over ideology, and that was working. He seemed to know what he needed to know and, more importantly, knew what he didn't need to know.

This new Edwards seems to be someone who has all the answers. But does he have too many answers? In 2004, he was the candidate who many Democrats admit was probably more electable than Kerry. Now, he's moved far enough to the left that it won't be surprising if some observers start questioning his electability in a general election.

As for Romney, he is widely respected in the business community as someone who knows how to tackle a problem, and he seems to have applied this mindset to his ideology. Technically, he's doing all the things that should please the right and make himself more palatable to conservatives.

But the mistake Romney appears to be making is that as he's fixed all the little problems with the sale of his product (in this case, himself) to niche markets, he's done serious damage to the overall brand of what he represented previously.

Romney's best traits, arguably, are the outsider tag and his problem-solving skills. But he's so bogged down in proving his bona-fides to conservatives that questions about his overall authenticity are now damaging his reputation as an outsider and a problem-solver. By getting into bed with many conservative elites, is he no longer an outsider? He's literally checking every box (NRA membership? Check; Heritage Foundation contribution? Check; and so on). The more he plays the flip-flopper and finger-in-the-wind, the less his best traits come through.

It's still early, but both Edwards and Romney need to recognize that if they lose the personal connection that once made them seem like naturals, it won't matter how well they answer the NRA or SEIU questionnaires. Voters will punish the candidates for losing touch with the people they most need to stay in touch with — themselves.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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