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updated: 3/3/2012 9:20 PM

The danger of Mitt being Mitt

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Political consultants tell candidates to be authentic -- to "be yourself." In Mitt Romney's case, that might not be such good advice.

Once again, for what seems like the umpteenth time, Romney is being crowned as the presumptive Republican nominee. His victories in Michigan and Arizona took much of the wind out of Rick Santorum's sails; Newt Gingrich is lost at sea; and Ron Paul is, well, Ron Paul. As long as Romney keeps winning, talk of some kind of deus ex machina plot twist at the convention -- someone just like Jeb Bush surfaces, but with a different last name -- remains pure fantasy.

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Given the Romney campaign's huge advantages in money and organization, and given the has-been nature of his opposition, the only reason he hasn't wrapped this thing up is the "authenticity" issue: Not just "is he a real conservative" but "is he even a real person," in the sense of having some idea of how most Americans live.

The campaign has sought to answer that question with stunts such as sending Romney to the Daytona 500. The optics were good until a reporter asked the candidate if he follows NASCAR. Romney's response will live forever.

"Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans," he said, "but I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners."

Well, who doesn't? In Romney's world, I mean.

There was a similarly clueless moment in Michigan. Romney was trying to atone for his vocal opposition to President Obama's bailout of the auto industry. He said he liked seeing so many Detroit-made cars on the streets -- to be expected in Detroit -- and noted that he drives a Ford Mustang and a Chevrolet pickup. As icing on the cake, he added that his wife Ann "drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually."

Again, who doesn't?

The explanation of why Ann Romney can't get by with one did not advance the candidate's quest for regular-guy authenticity: The cars are garaged at different residences.

And who can forget the way Romney, whose wealth is estimated at $250 million, described one of his sources of income. "I get speakers' fees from time to time, but not very much," he said.

His tax returns showed earnings from speaking engagements of more than $370,000. Indeed, that's "not very much" compared to Romney's income from his investments. To most Americans, it's a fortune.

I could go on and on with examples of Romney's Marie Antoinette rhetoric, but you get the point. It's not just what he says that tends to distance him from voters, but the whole way he carries himself. He's just not believable as a NASCAR fan, ardent or otherwise.

Advisers tried putting him in jeans. At the end of a long day, they still have a crease.

Romney has been running for president for the better part of a decade, yet still hasn't made a personal connection with the Republican base, let alone the wider electorate. The conventional advice, at this point, would be: Quit pretending. Don't try to convince voters you're a red-meat social conservative when your record on social issues screams "moderate." And please, don't pretend to be Average Joe if your proof of identity is that you keep American-made luxury cars at two of your mansions.

Romney took this kind of I-am-who-I-am stand earlier this week when he said that while "it's very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments," he was "not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support." He even joked later about his immaculate coif, saying that "it would be a big fire, I assure you."

That was charmingly authentic. The problem is that the effect of Romney's comment is to dismiss the Republican Party's activist base as an unsophisticated rabble. Which is perhaps not the best attitude for a Republican candidate to display.

Romney's "gaffes" look unmistakably like glimpses of the real Romney -- not a bad person, but a man with no ability to see beyond the small, cosseted world of private equity and great wealth that he inhabits. He has to be reminded that most voters live in a world where people drive their Cadillacs one at a time.

From the Romney campaign's point of view, it may be that while fake authenticity is bad, real authenticity is much worse. If I were an adviser, I'd send out a memo to all hands: Whatever you do, don't let Mitt be Mitt.

Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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