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Published: Tuesday, 7/31/2012

How August can matter, and how Romney might use it


Mitt Romney returns to Earth, or at least to the United States, this week after an overseas tour designed to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and prepare him for the Republican National Convention next month and then a grueling general-election battle. Summer vacation's over. It's back to work.

Presidential elections are seldom this close this far from Election Day, which is why the way Mr. Romney uses August is unusually important. There's much to do, and not a day to waste.

Mr. Romney's advisers surely know the way another Massachusetts governor, 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, whiled away his summer --and a 17-point lead -- as Vice President George H.W. Bush planned a brutal assault on his rival that won him the White House.

There are substantial similarities between Mr. Romney and Mr. Dukakis. They both occupied the governor's office on the second floor of the State House on Beacon Hill. Both hold Harvard University degrees. Both have a difficult time making emotional connections with voters. Both have a record of government efficiency, possess an appreciation for the art of business, and are famous inside their families for manic expressions of personal thrift.

But Mr. Dukakis ran in a completely different era, before the 24-hour news cycle, before the Internet, before Twitter, before vitriolic public commentary on every Web site and cable TV network, and before super-political action committees. The changes between the Dukakis-Bush campaign and Obama-Romney 24 years later are so great they cannot be measured.

Even so, Mr. Romney must avoid some of the missteps made by the Dukakis campaign.

An underdog initially and vastly underestimated, Mr. Dukakis shrewdly won his nomination in a far tougher field than Mr. Romney confronted, including future vice president and party nominee Al Gore, future House majority leader Richard Gephardt, and civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson.

But after reaching a rapprochement with Mr. Jackson on July 4, Mr. Dukakis lost steam. He wasted the month of August, preoccupied with how state lottery revenues would be dispersed and visiting officials across Massachusetts. He permitted Mr. Bush to dominate the airwaves and the conversation. He swiftly found himself on defense, particularly on national-security issues.

Mr. Romney will avoid many of those errors simply by virtue of having no gubernatorial responsibilities and, in fact, no day job at all. Thus, he has none of the distractions that bedeviled Mr. Dukakis. The national zeitgeist is different enough that he cannot even contemplate being out of sight in August. Nature has always abhorred a vacuum. But the new physics created by social media renders the notion of a political vacuum impossible.

Mr. Dukakis didn't give the national-security speech his advisers contemplated. Traveling in Europe and the Middle East this week, Mr. Romney is addressing the issue.

Mr. Dukakis didn't counter attacks, and even warned his staff he wouldn't tolerate negativism. Mr. Romney, battered throughout July and portrayed as a soulless master of private equity, is fighting back.

Mr. Romney possesses another advantage. Mr. Dukakis's convention concluded on July 21. By that point, he already had a running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Mr. Romney's nomination won't be conferred officially until nearly six weeks later, which means his selection of a running mate, and his convention bump, will come later -- though because the Democratic convention is only a few days after that, it may be smaller.

Both Mr. Dukakis and Mr. Romney are meticulous men, fascinated with and sometimes drowning in details, so there's little chance the 2012 nominee will rush the selection of a vice-presidential nominee like Sen. John McCain (2008) and Sen. George McGovern (1972) did.

We know Mr. Romney will avoid that problem. But avoiding problems and using the next month profitably are two different things.

First, he must answer some of the questions thrown his way -- about his wealth, his career, and his policy proposals.

Then he must ask some questions of his own of Mr. Obama. One of them might be: "How, Mr. President, after more than three years of your policies and your admirable concern about those struggling economically, can it be possible that the poverty rate is at levels not seen since you were a child?"

A nation awaits the question, and the answer.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com

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