WASHINGTON – Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles on the 2008 presidential candidates and the challenges they must overcome to become their party's respective nominees.
The problem with getting stuck with the "blow-dried candidate" label is that no matter where one stands in the polls or what successes he may have on the campaign trail, everyone is still talking about the hair.
As recently as this weekend a teenage girl at a restaurant in Iowa asked Mitt Romney if she could touch his hair.
Fourteen-year-old Meg Fink told The Associated Press she saw Romney at the debate on Iowa Public Television and thought to herself, "He has nice hair."
Movie-star looks never hurt a candidate. But Romney, despite his impressive spending, hard-charging retail politicking, ace field organization and top or near-the-top poll standing in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, sometimes has trouble breaking through appearances.
Just this week Romney appeared for the first time on the hard-charging, star-making Sunday morning news hour "Meet the Press," despite leading in New Hampshire and Iowa for months.
"He's perfect looking, with perfect hair and everything else," said political science professor Sean Evans of Union University in Tennessee. "Everything combines to create a perfect Madison Avenue image. He needs to be perceived as Mitt Romney the leader and reformer, and not the Mitt Romney to date."
Political observers say Romney, who was governor of Massachusetts -- a very blue state -- from 2002 to 2006, probably wouldn't be scrutinized so intensely for his looks if not for what opponents have painted as early "flip flops" on conservative issues in order to play to the Republican base. With his "put together" image, critics are trying to plant concerns that Romney will just say or do what it takes to win.
So far, it's been a hurdle.
"I think the American people are deeply, deeply mistrustful of any candidate they view as running for president since they were out of the womb," said Erick Erickson, co-founder of the political blog RedState.org. Meanwhile, conservatives, especially, have been asked to overlook his earlier positions on abortion rights and his support for the gay and lesbian community.
"I think there are other candidates that are making the psychic connection with Republican primary voters better," said Craig Shirley, a GOP media strategist. However, he said, Romney is "hanging in there. I think six months ago, prognosticators would have counted him out."
To prove his conservative credentials, Romney recently snagged the coveted endorsements of movement guru Paul Weyrich and evangelist leader Bob Jones III. All indications are that Romney is not being thrown over for Rudy Giuliani, who is leading in the national polls for the GOP nominations, or conservative insurgent Mike Huckabee.
Romney's resume is also nothing to dismiss as manufactured puffery. For nearly 25 years, he was a successful venture capitalist and financial manager -- a self-made millionaire who helped guide big name franchises like Domino's Pizza and Staples office supply chains to success.
Before he was elected governor of Massachusetts, he served as president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, where he was credited with steering the institution out of financial problems and scandal, and with successfully coordinating post-Sept. 11, 2001, security for the games.
Christine Hargrove of Massachusetts for Mitt says Romney hardly ever gets the national attention he deserves for the work he has done in the Bay State, like signing and supporting a 2006 health care reform bill that mandates universal coverage for state residents. The plan, which the state is already implementing, ensures coverage by beefing up private and government insurance options -- not so dissimilar to a proposal announced by Hillary Clinton.
"A lot of people here -- especially militant liberal people here -- really disagree with what [Republicans] stand for, but at the same time, they admire the way he was able to bring people together on a very, very volatile issue," said Hargrove.
Hargrove said the flip-flop label is manufactured by liberal critics who want a "straw man" to knock down. As for Romney seeming too slick, she dismisses this too.
"I personally think his looks, his track record, his incredible family and work ethic -- it's all based in reality," she said. "All these things that make him a perfect candidate are 100 percent earned. I think he is an uncommon man and that is something to admire."
Caricatures of being a slick flip-flopper with perfect hair were a big enough distraction for the Romney campaign that its concern showed up in an internal campaign document reported by The Boston Globe in July. It acknowledged these attacks against their candidate and provided in detail how Romney could steer away from them.
Political analysts say they have one suggestion right off the bat: Be yourself.
"He's got a record to run on and a lot of people look at that. He's got a lot of good conservative backers on his team," said Erickson, pointing to longtime GOP operative Barbara Comstock and Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review. "Honestly, this sounds counterintuitive, but I think he needs to be less polished."
To underscore this point, Erickson pointed to a YouTube video of Romney in an August interview with Iowa conservative talk radio host Jan Mickelson. Apparently unbeknownst to the campaign, the radio host videotaped the exchange, including a feisty off-air volley where Romney defends his political decision to oppose abortion rights after supporting them in the 1990s, and challenges the host's interpretation of Mormon doctrine, of which Romney is a staunch adherent.
Not only did the video serve to bolster his campaign's effort to assuage fears of Romney's Mormonism – if elected, he will be the first Mormon president -- it proved that he can be authentically tough and a lot more interesting when he is unaware he's on camera.
"The was very blunt and forceful and to the point, and a lot of conservative friends who saw that said if he was this guy all the time, rather than who he is, I would be out there supporting him," said Erickson.
Iowa volunteer Norma Adema is convinced that Romney already comes off like that, leading to why his support is so promising in her first-in-the-nation caucuses. "My first reaction is, are you kidding me?" said the Sioux City resident.
"Yes, he's an appealing, attractive, person and if that’s what gets people to see him, when they start talking to him and visiting with him, they find that this guy is bright, he's a truly bright man, he's got some common sense to him and that makes sense to us in the grass roots," said Adema.
She dismissed the flip-flopper tag as more of an honest willingness to change and doubts Iowans would like him so much if he were a phony. "People in Iowa, they're grassroots people, and they can see through that, he would not be doing so well in Iowa if he was plastic. He is genuine, he really is."
Romney had been ranking first in the Iowa polls, but recently has fallen to second behind Huckabee, whose Baptist preacher background appeals to the 30-50 percent of Iowa Republican caucus voters who claim to be Evangelicals. Noting the upset, Romney recently delivered a speech on faith in politics that was praised by voters and pundits for its seriousness and authenticity.
Romney spokesman Alex Burgos is convinced the contact with voters has translated into his competitive polling numbers in Iowa, New Hampshire and even South Carolina -- all early states that are essential to building momentum for the nomination. "It's hard to find a person who walks away unimpressed with Gov. Romney."
But in these early states, where voters get lavished with more attention and face time with Republican and Democratic candidates than any other state in the union, Romney has spent millions to get his message out there, especially in Iowa.
Eric Dezenhall, Republican public relations strategist, says the idea that Romney is playing a role is what makes voters wary, particularly if they feel they are being pandered to on conservative issues like immigration and abortion. The candidate, he says, would do better being himself.
"What Romney has to do is embrace the fact that he is not an ideologue, he's sort of a pragmatic figure, and I don't think that's so bad," said Dezenhall. "This could be his brand. I'm not convinced that one needs to be a fascist to win the right."