The question put to Mitt Romney at the Republican presidential debate in Michigan several weeks ago seemed to be a golden opportunity for him to show off his vaunted analytical side. Maria Bartiromo, a CNBC commentator, asked the candidate what he thought posed “the greatest long-term threat” to the American economy.
But instead of summoning a litany of facts and statistics, Mr. Romney suggested that the greatest threat was this: “Our sense of optimism. America has to be optimistic and recognize that there’s nothing we can’t overcome.”
The gauzy answer might have surprised some observers, but the comments fit into the sunny mien that Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has tried, with varying degrees of success, to carry off since the beginning of his campaign.
Each of the leading Republican contenders has sought to channel in some way the shiny optimism that helped make Ronald Reagan, who famously campaigned on the slogan that it was “morning again in America,” so popular. But it is Mr. Romney who has most thoroughly incorporated such sunbeamy phrases and anecdotes into his repertory on the stump.
Audience members often say they appreciate his positivism, but his pleased-as-punch ebullience can also come across as forced or, worse, play into caricatures of him as being too polished to be real.
The idea of optimism trumping pessimism is one of the lessons Republicans draw from the Reagan experience — his genial outlook in the 1980 election became something of an antidote to President Jimmy Carter’s declaration of malaise. But there are clearly times when optimism can run aground. The first President George Bush lost the 1992 election in part by appearing not concerned enough about the impact of the recession on average Americans.
Mr. Romney’s reference to the importance of optimism at the Michigan debate was actually the second conspicuously chipper remark he made that evening, having declared earlier that the best way to win back confidence in the economy was by “pointing out that the future’s going to be even brighter than our past.”
“I am optimistic about this country, if you haven’t got that measure already,” he said recently in a speech on global trade in Greenwood, S.C., in which he called for the formation of a “Reagan zone of economic freedom.”
“You see,” he said, “I’ve been across the country. I’ve met people from, boy, a lot of states; and you come away confident that the American people have the heart to succeed at everything we put our minds to.”
In his appearances, Mr. Romney almost invariably pivots, sometimes rather abruptly, from talking about the challenges facing the country to squeeze in a soaring anecdote or two about the strength of the American spirit and why the country remains the “hope of the world.”
Earlier in the year, Mr. Romney was asked at a Republican debate at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to describe what he did not like about America.
'Gosh, I love America'
“Gosh, I love America,” Mr. Romney said. “I’m afraid I’m going to be at a loss for words because America for me is not just our rolling mountains and hills and streams and great cities. It’s the American people. And the American people are the greatest people in the world. What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people.”
He also made clear who his source of inspiration was: “It’s that optimism we thank Ronald Reagan for.”
Mr. Romney’s advisers said the hopefulness he had worked so assiduously to deliver on the stump was simply a part of his personality, and that was confirmed by several people who worked on his 2002 campaign for governor but are not affiliated with his run for president. “The campaign mantra was ‘Clean up the mess on Beacon Hill,’ which was a blend of optimism and pessimism,” said Jonathan Spampinato, who was Mr. Romney’s deputy political director in the 2002 governor’s race.
But Mr. Romney’s campaign believes that harnessing positive language is an effective way for him to distinguish himself from his rivals, like Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose relentless focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism can feel dark to some, and Senator John McCain, who has maintained a dour resolve about the Iraq war.
“Early on, we recognized it as a strength,” said Kevin Madden, Mr. Romney’s national press secretary. “We see what it is that voters really respond to, and it is an optimism and can-do spirit that he has toward everything.”
There are limits, of course, to Mr. Romney’s emulation of Reagan. Political observers note that Mr. Romney, who built his vast personal fortune as a corporate takeover specialist, lacks Reagan’s common touch and neighborly charm.
Part of the struggle for Mr. Romney, whose father was chairman of American Motors before becoming governor of Michigan, is his background, which is much more affluent than Reagan’s, said Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns who has written a book about Reagan.
“Reagan’s was a hardscrabble upbringing,” Mr. Shirley said. “His father was an itinerant shoe salesman. He knew what it was like to work hard, what it was like to go without, to go through the Depression.”
Mr. Shirley said he would give Mr. Romney a “gentleman’s C” in his Reaganesque efforts, crediting him with understanding the potency of optimism better than others but cautioned him about “trying too hard.”