WASHINGTON — Just before his speech Wednesday to the American Society of News Editors, word emerged that the Republican presidential front-runner would not allow photographers to get closer than 150 feet while he spoke.
The journalists protested, noting that President Barack Obama, speaking to the same group Tuesday in the same ballroom at the Marriott Wardman Park, allowed photographers to shoot just a few feet from him, but the Romney campaign rejected the appeal.
"I shot the Springsteen concert and I was closer than this," grumbled one veteran photographer, looking through his 600 mm lens, a type more commonly used at football games.
The juxtaposition — up-close Obama and stand-back Mitt Romney — was an apt beginning to the presidential campaign. By all accounts (except, perhaps, Rick Santorum's), Romney's primary wins on Tuesday made his nomination virtually certain, which makes this week the unofficial beginning of the general election race. Obama's and Romney's speeches to the editors' gathering on successive days gave a preview of their divergent campaign styles.
Obama spoke to the group for exactly an hour and was relatively loose, making jokes about the Romney campaign's Etch A Sketch episode and the moment his own private exchange with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was caught by an open microphone. Romney spoke for half that time, reading a slashing assault on the president from a teleprompter. When he went off script, during the Q&A session after the speech, he kept returning to the needs of corporate America.
Asked to critique Obama's speech, Romney uttered the phrase "I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal just a couple days ago…" Asked why he is polling 18 points behind Obama among women, Romney went on a screed about business reaction to Obamacare, financial regulations, cap-and-trade proposals and labor decisions. "The economy is simply the addition of all the businesses in America," Romney told the editors — an echo of his earlier claim that "corporations are people."
The performance, though stiff, was certainly not Romney's worst. For the first time, he could safely turn his attention away from his Republican rivals, allowing him to tear into the president for the bulk of his speech.
Obama will "state his true position only after the election is over," Romney alleged, and he is "setting up a straw man to distract us from his record." Obama "delayed the recovery and he made it anemic," enacted "the mother of all earmarks," is "apologizing for America abroad" and gave money to "his friends and campaign contributors at companies like Solyndra."
The barrage was extensive: "trillion-dollar deficit … largest tax increase in history … end Medicare as we know it … inaction on entitlements … hide-and-seek campaign." Taunted Romney: "It almost makes one long for the days when the president simply led from behind."
It's potentially a strong line of attack, and some of the accusations have the virtue of being true. But it's not clear whether voters will notice that substance through Romney's unsettling style.
Romney took the stage to a Sousa march and immediately tried out a few standard-issue jokes. He said he and his campaign press corps have "aired our dirty laundry together, sometimes literally as well as figuratively." He made light of his eligibility for Medicare. He recalled LBJ's line that if he were to walk on water, the headline would be "President can't swim." He even trotted out Yogi Berra: "Forecasting is very difficult, especially when it involves the future." All met with weak laughter.
He further warmed up his audience by complaining about the use of anonymous sources. When asked about a "shield law" for confidential sources, Romney demurred: "I'd want to hear from — from people in the industry."
Deferring to industry is a Romney trademark. Even his thoughts on his gender gap in the polls came straight from the boardroom.
"Almost every measure that the president has taken made it harder for small business to decide to grow in America or big business to stay here," he said, vowing to create "the best environment for business in the world — small business, big business, entrepreneurs, innovators, job creators of all kinds." He continued his answer on the gender gap by quoting the Coca-Cola chief's views on China.
The candidate is clearly aware of his style deficit, because he closed with a wish for November that "our choice will not be one of party or personality."
And if the campaign is about personality? To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Romney will be an overwhelming underdog.
Washington Post Writers Group
Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist based in Washington.