Mitt Romney: The man on the wedding cake?

Thomas Dewey, left, ran against Harry Truman in 1948.  Mitt Romney, right, may play the role of Dewey in presidential election.

Story highlights

  • Romney is viewed as moderate, stiff, inauthentic -- criticisms made against Dewey
  • Tom Dewey was "extraordinarily opaque," author Zachary Karabell writes
  • Romney is more likely to fight back against his critics than Dewey was in 1948
  • Ultimately, the state of the economy may prove to be the most critical issue

Less than 10 months from the general election, Barack Obama appears to be laying the groundwork for a reprise of Harry Truman's populist 1948 campaign.

Running for a second term with a soft economy, the president's ready to tie the Republican nominee to what he characterizes as an extreme, do-nothing Congress serving the interests of the wealthy elite at the expense of the broad middle class.

But if Obama is Truman, does that make GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney the next Tom Dewey? Maybe -- at least as far as public persona goes. There are several striking similarities between the former Massachusetts governor and the ill-fated New Yorker who led the GOP to defeat in 1944 and 1948.

Well into his second campaign for the presidency, Romney remains an enigma to most Americans.

Blessed with a happy marriage, movie star hair and a picture perfect family, he is ridiculed by critics as a living Ken doll: He's seen as plastic in the flesh, socially awkward, murky in personality, unknowable in conviction. He's the 21st-century Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a corporate machine methodically working his way up the ladder while less disciplined rivals fall by the wayside.

Mike Huckabee once said Romney looks like the guy who fired you.

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Despite years of outreach, Romney is still not fully trusted by conservative activists -- a fact hammered home last weekend in South Carolina. They look at his record in liberal Massachusetts and question his ability and willingness to act on their agenda if he reaches the White House.

    The Republicans were in a similar spot in the summer of 1948. A number of conservative leaders at the time were downright apoplectic at the thought of nominating Dewey -- the personification of the dreaded moderate "Eastern Establishment." The Empire State's governor for over five years by that time, Dewey had made his peace with the New Deal, accepting most of its basic tenets.

    When Dewey's name was officially placed in nomination at the GOP convention in Philadelphia that year, he was hailed as "America's greatest administrator" -- a label eagerly slapped on Romney today by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Conservatives tried to derail Dewey -- pushing Ohio's Robert Taft among others -- but much like their counterparts today, they remained divided and disorganized.

    "The only pattern to the opposition (in 1948) was self-interest; that, and a crazy-quilt mix of loyalties," says historian Richard Norton Smith in his biography of Dewey.

    It's the description of Dewey's public image, however, that's most jarring if you're looking for a Romney analogy.

    "For a national politician, Dewey's private life was kept remarkably private," author Zachary Karabell writes in "The Last Campaign," a book about the 1948 race. The wealthy New York governor had campaign photos taken of him and his family at their 486-acre estate, but "the results were decidedly mixed." Dewey "was pictured wearing a three-piece suit. Next to him sat his two teenage sons in suits, and though they appeared to be playing with the dog and reading about baseball, the whole scene looked as staged as it was."

    Today, the wealthy Romney is mocked for hitting the trail with Gap skinny jeans and an unbuttoned collar shirt.

    The New York governor "may have been a kind, warm family man. He may have been a skilled party leader, and he may have assembled a talented group of advisers to manage the statehouse in Albany and to run his national campaign," Karabell notes. He may have "appeared to be an acceptable, an electable, and a competent candidate. But not then and not now did he seem totally real. ... (He) could be many things to many people, but in the end, it isn't entirely clear what he was to himself."

    What stands out most about Dewey, Karabell says, is the fact that he "remained extraordinarily opaque."

    Postwar Republican doyenne Clair Boothe Luce once called Dewey "this little chap who looks like the bridegroom on a wedding cake."

    Plenty of critics today might say the same thing about Romney. Like Dewey and perhaps Al Gore and John Kerry before him, the former Massachusetts governor has been marked as stiff, awkward, and inauthentic. If past is prologue, it will be nearly impossible for him to escape those adjectives. The more relevant question is how much they'll matter.

    "I think it's hard to get elected when people are really lukewarm," Karabell told CNN. "The absence of passion was not a good thing for Dewey. You're not going to get swarms of wide-eyed Romney lovers."

    But a lack of love from voters can be overcome. Few people claimed to love Richard Nixon in 1968. The notoriously wooden Gore won the popular vote 12 years ago.

    And while plenty of parallels can be drawn between Dewey and Romney, campaign strategy isn't one of them. Dewey repeatedly refused to respond to Truman's harsh attacks in the fall of '48, telling a supporter at one point that "nobody believes that stuff anyway."

    The Romney campaign's shredding of Gingrich in Iowa in December -- and in Florida now -- tells you all you need to know about its likely response to Obama in a general election.

    "Our bar for negative campaigning has changed," Karabell says. "Casual character denunciation is less remarkable today than at other points."

    Another critical variable -- perhaps the most important of all -- is the state of the economy. In 1948, the American economy had plenty of problems. Prices were rising and a recession loomed. But things were still good enough for Truman to squeeze out a win.

    Today, the economy at home and abroad appears to be at a tipping point.

    Unemployment remains high, but over 200,000 jobs were created last month. If the fragile economy takes off this year, don't bet against Obama. But if it tanks, there's a pretty good chance the man on the wedding cake -- whatever his flaws -- could be the one standing at the presidential altar next January.