Through the ups and downs of the Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has remained in effect the front-runner.
He has done so even without holding as many rallies, town hall meetings or meet-and-greet events as some of the other candidates. He’s also done fewer media appearances.
In the 2008 election cycle, Romney did 177 events in Iowa — the first state to begin the presidential nominating process — according to a database maintained by The Washington Post. This year, Romney has done only 13 events in the state, according to The Des Moines Register. That’s far fewer than his rivals.
Of course, Iowa is not Romney’s focus this time around. Instead, his campaign is putting far more energy into New Hampshire, where Romney has a home, and which holds the nation’s first primary on Jan. 10, a week after the Iowa caucuses.
So, how much have New Hampshire voters seen the former Massachusetts governor?
“Romney this year has been doing his best to fly under the radar,” says political scientist Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“He’s been leading in polls for two-plus years, he’s been the most popular candidate, he’s had the highest favorability ratings,” says Smith. “And I think what he’s doing is essentially playing a game of running out the clock here.”
That means no whistle-stop tours through small towns, and a minimum of question-and-answer sessions with voters or reporters — and few high profile interviews, as Chris Wallace recently noted on Fox News Sunday.
“We have now interviewed all the major Republican candidates in our 2012 ‘One on One’ series, except Mitt Romney,” Wallace said. “He has not appeared on this program or any Sunday talk show since March of 2010.”
That adds up to 20 months of saying no to free air time. But the Romney campaign says describing its strategy as low-key is ridiculous.
A campaign official said the former Massachusetts governor has done countless editorial board meetings with newspapers and more than 20 town hall sessions in various states.
And it’s true that Romney is not entirely absent from the spotlight. On Friday, he held an event in Manchester, N.H., though he did not take questions.
Still, Romney’s tally of “20-plus” town hall meetings pales in comparison to a candidate like Rick Santorum, who has 15 public events between Friday and Monday, including eight town halls.
Political strategists on both sides of the aisle say the low profile is working for Romney.
“The one thing you hear amongst Republican circles, is you don’t hear anyone saying he’s running a bad campaign,” says Ed Goeas, a Republican strategist who runs The Tarrance Group.
Goeas notes that voters are seeing much more of all the candidates this year than they did in 2008 because of frequent televised debates. Romney has been in 10 already, with five more coming before the year is out.
“So, 15 debates squeezed in a pretty compact time period is eating up, I think, a lot of the candidates’ time, by all accounts,” Goeas says.
Last summer, when Romney was out of sight for a while, Politico coined the term “Mitness Protection Program.” The Democratic National Committee revived the phrase this week, noting that out of Romney’s seven New Hampshire appearances this month, he has only taken questions once.
Democratic strategist Geoff Garin says when the rest of the Republican candidates are constantly shooting themselves in the foot, all Romney really needs to do is stand back and avoid the shrapnel.
“If you look around at the other Republican candidates, they are making big mistakes that are costing them a chance at the nomination, and Romney himself, when he’s been out there, has had a number of flubs and embarrassing moments,” Garin says.
“Why risk those things,” asks Garin, “if you’re very likely to be the last man standing in a very weak field of Republican candidates?”
And with the time that he saves on the campaign trail, Romney can spend his days raising money and gathering endorsements — both of which may be more useful down the road.