On the surface, he may seem the least likely politician of the age to be regarded as mysterious at all-- but the plain-talking, seldom-excitable, and rarely exciting Mitt Romney, who has been speaking four or five times a day for more than a year, has revealed almost nothing about himself and his views.
Political polls have shown little movement in recent months. President Obama holds a steady but slim single-figure lead over Mr. Romney. While it is impossible to isolate one reason why a business-oriented Republican has failed to overtake a regulation-oriented Democrat at a time of stubborn economic distress, it remains remarkable that Mr. Romney has proffered so few new ideas of his own.
Mr. Romney isn't running an empty, media-oriented campaign. He has plenty to say, about economics, gay marriage, and after his overseas trip, national security and diplomatic matters.
But except perhaps for his China policy, his proposals, dutiful and detailed, are more derivative than original. His notions about the size of government can be traced to Ronald Reagan. His views about social issues have strong roots in religious conservatism.
His assertions of American exceptionalism grow out of the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. And his expressions of impatience with the status quo are ripped from the labels of the tea bags on the muscular right of the conservative movement.
Not all American politicians are originals, of course. New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt had few ideas when he ran for president in 1932.
But some candidates are founts of new ideas. Sen. Gary Hart and Rep. Jack Kemp ran for president on new, and big, ideas. Sen. John F. Kennedy and former Governor Reagan ran on very big ideas, with oversized rhetoric that stirs Americans still.
Mr. Romney is running as an exceptionally gifted manager, armed with conventional conservative ideas. Americans rarely elect managers, who often have the political sex appeal of accountants. The only exception may be Herbert Hoover, one of the great business figures of his age and perhaps the leading manager in political history.
Hoover's business experience and acumen, and the air of management competence that he cultivated and personified, gave him 444 electoral votes in his battle against a breakthrough candidate much like Mr. Obama, Gov. Al Smith of New York, the first Catholic to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party.
Other presidential candidates who have run as managers made little impact in electoral politics. These include Donald Rumsfeld, who as the recent former chief of G.D. Searle and Co., ran for president briefly in 1988, and Lee Iacocca, who held top positions at both Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Corp., and toyed with running for president. Both said they would have emphasized bringing business values to government, which sounds better in the executive suite than on the campaign hustings.
In his 1988 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis made a memorable remark:
"This election isn't about ideology; it's about competence," he said. "It's not about meaningless labels; it's about American values -- old-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth."
Mr. Romney could say almost all of that except for the ideology part, for he has drawn an ideological contrast with the President even without original ideas.
It is, however, relatively early in the campaign. Mr. Romney's formal nomination is still weeks away. His acceptance speech has not yet been written. Both the phrases "New Deal" (from FDR) and "New Frontier" (from Kennedy) appeared in their convention acceptance speeches.
When Robert Frost went to visit the White House in 1958, he presented President Dwight Eisenhower a volume of his poems. On the flyleaf he wrote: "The strong are saying nothing until they see." Perhaps that applies to Mr. Romney. And perhaps for the former Massachusetts governor, the road not taken lies ahead.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: email@example.com