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Mitt Romney's likeability problem: GOP leaders offer advice

David CookThe Christian Science Monitor

House majority whip Kevin McCarthy acknowledges that Mitt Romney trails Barack Obama in voter ratings on likability. But that factor won’t matter as much as it usually does in presidential elections, he argues, because financially pinched voters care so much more about the candidates' economic policies.

"Likeability is a big factor. But [given] the time and place of what is happening today, it is not going to be the biggest determinant because people are hurting, people want to get back to work," Representative McCarthy, a California Republican, said Wednesday at a Washington breakfast for reporters hosted by the Monitor. McCarthy's role as whip, or voter counter, makes him the third-ranking Republican in the House.

McCarthy also offered the Romney campaign some advice on how to narrow his likability gap. "If I was Mitt Romney, what I would do ... every city [where] I would go into an event, I would first stop at Staples," McCarthy said, prompted by a question. "Why would I stop at Staples? Because there would be no Staples if it wasn’t for Mitt Romney taking a risk. Who does Staples sell to? Every small business around. I wouldn’t do a rally there, I would just go in."

In almost every presidential contest since Harry Truman faced off against Thomas Dewey in 1948, the winning candidate has been the one whom voters say they like the most. A USA Today/Gallup Poll of registered voters conducted July 19-22 gave Mr. Obama the edge on likability. Of those surveyed, 60 percent said Obama is likable. Thirty percent said Mr. Romney is.

The Gallup poll echoed findings from an ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted April 5 to 8 among registered voters. In that survey, 64 percent said Obama seemed "the more friendly and likeable person." Some 28 percent said that description applied to Romney.

One more indication of how voters view their relationship with Romney comes from a new CBS News/NewYork Times/Quinnipiac University poll released this week. It surveyed likely voters in the key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Voters were asked if "Mitt Romney cares about the needs and problems of people like you or not." Some 54 percent of likely voters in Pennsylvania, 55 percent in Ohio, and 49 percent in Florida said no.

The Gallup poll found that Americans see Romney as better able than the president to deal with key economic issues. Still, Jeffrey Jones, managing editor of the poll, wrote that, "Given the closeness of the race at this point, it appears having an advantage on the dominant issue of the day is not sufficient to convince voters to elect a candidate. Romney's Achilles' heel may be a significant likability deficit to Obama, both in how Americans view each candidate individually and in their perceptions of who is more likable."

McCarthy is one who hopes that Mr. Jones is wrong. "When I look at where America is at, yeah, they like Obama. They probably want to go golfing with Obama. He does it a lot. They want to join him. But in the time and place of where the country is, I will go golfing with you but I don’t want you running my country. I want somebody to make sure the trains run on time and get this place moving again," McCarthy says.

After the exposure that Romney will get at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., later this month, "a lot of people are going to like him," he adds.