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Why Romney's rallies are a waste of time

By Alex Castellanos, CNN Contributor
updated 11:46 AM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Castellanos: Mitt Romney's rallies appeal to the converted but don't gain new voters
  • He says Rush Limbaugh took issue with his idea that Romney should lighten up on rallies
  • Castellanos says Romney should emphasize his solutions to issue of how to govern
  • He says Romney needs to appeal to broader crowd by looking presidential, not political

Editor's note: Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, is a Republican consultant and the co-founder of Purple Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast

(CNN) -- If I named the conservatives who've done the most for freedom and the conservative cause in my lifetime, I'd include William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, and not necessarily in that order.

I'm not sure Rush has ever run a political campaign, but he's a hell of a radio host. The man has enthralled 20 million listeners three hours a day, nonstop, without guests for nearly 30 years. Reliably, I'm one of them.

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

Turning afternoon soliloquies into a national institution for more than three decades cannot be easy. No one has duplicated it. His unique work requires a prodigious brain and a matching ego. Rush is not particularly fond of any idea that isn't his; when he was growing up, I suspect he was not allowed to play with other kids.

A few days ago, on his radio show, Limbaugh took exception to a suggestion I made on CNN that Mitt Romney add a little variety to his political campaign.

Right now, to these experienced old eyes, Team Romney appears to be doing the same political event over and over again. They ride the same bus, show up at the same political rally, deliver the same message to an identical looking crowd, at an indistinguishable venue. As a result, we are force-fed the same cookie-cutter campaign on TV news.

Opinion: Can Romney get back on track?

Mitt Romney waves as he arrives at a campaign rally at SeaGate Convention Centre September 26 in Toledo, Ohio.
Mitt Romney waves as he arrives at a campaign rally at SeaGate Convention Centre September 26 in Toledo, Ohio.

It has become a snoozer.

Rush took a little license in interpreting my remarks, saying, "Alex Castellanos -- our good buddy, the Republican strategist on CNN -- is upset at these big crowds. He wishes Romney would make the crowds smaller. I'm not kidding. I'm not kidding you. Not kidding you. Well, he says it doesn't look presidential."

What I actually said was the following:

"Every time I turn on my TV, it's the same political rally with Paul Ryan and the same crowd around him, state after state after state, and it looks like a political beauty pageant. And it looks like politics, not like governing. You don't want to run for president looking like a candidate. You want to run for president looking like a president. Go to where the problem is, Mitt Romney, go to an inner city and find out what's happened to the American family that's falling apart. Go where the problem is, go to an unemployment line, talk to some people."

It looks like a political beauty pageant. And it looks like politics, not like governing.
Alex Castellanos

That is not exactly urging smaller crowds -- and it was not a suggestion made by someone who has never run a political campaign.

So how is the endless parade of rallies working for Romney-Ryan? In the swing states Team Romney is executing these displays, he is further behind than the rest of the nation. Nationally, where Romney is not campaigning via an interminable series of rallies, Rasmussen daily tracking has the race tied.

This would recommend that Romney have more rallies in Alaska and fewer in Ohio, where the CNN poll of polls puts Romney at 7 points down, requiring him to gain a few votes to win.

Apparently there is also a Rush radio listener named Rick Wilson who feigns expertise in these matters and also prefers that Romney maintain his same rally-round-the-clock approach. Wilson admonished my "astonishingly dumb" idea, explaining, "The people who show up to those events are committed. They're believers."

Well let me slap myself on the forehead. Why did that not occur to me? That's exactly right, Romney is talking to believers -- which is one reason I would urge Team Romney to add a little variety to their menu.

If they are believers, that could mean Romney already has their votes. It's called preaching to the choir. And such rallies make for relentlessly boring television for the persuadable voters watching the news who chose not to attend.

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Over the years, I've seen lots of candidates get trapped in a loop, campaigning to their own supporters. A procession of love fests makes the candidate happy, which makes the campaign staff happy. Rallies, as organizational events that motivate your troops and display their whooping support, are often wonderful campaign tools. But is that the only news-making activity we can recommend?

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This unusual year, Republican voters are already intensely motivated to get out to vote by a fellow named Barack Obama. GOP intensity is at record levels.

Constructing the same redundant rally to motivate people who are already motivated is trying to set fire to a fire. Perhaps we could conceive a better use of the candidate's valuable time, like trying to get votes he does not have?

If Romney's rallies were expanding his support, like Obama's coliseum-fillers four years ago, keep doing them! When you are behind in Ohio, however, it might help to stop throwing the same pitch to the batters every inning. Throw a change-up.

By the way, whom do people hate these days with a revulsion beyond that earned by pedophiles and car salesmen? I'll suggest the answer: Politicians. Politicians who look like politicians, politicians who politic, politicians who hold rallies.

I do not expect to win the Nobel Prize for this, as our president did for even less, but here is an insight I've gleaned from years of campaign analysis and decades of experience: Political rallies are political.

And the recommendation we would make to Mitt Romney now is to look more like a politician?

In these last few weeks before Election Day, both campaigns will increase their ad spending. Their TV commercials will flood the airwaves. Political ads will become wallpaper, an endless series of Obama and Romney spots, interrupted by the occasional program. Imagining and creating news events will become more important than TV ads.

With six weeks to go, our audience is at home, in their seats, absorbing the news, munching popcorn, watching the gladiators. One great moment, like Reagan's "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green," can elevate a campaign and change the world.

My advice to the Romney campaign remains this: Create those great moments.

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Get serious. Get presidential. Elevate our great problems and demonstrate your solutions in front of us. Firemen go where the fire is. So do leaders. On this, Rush Limbaugh and I may agree.

In the same program, Rush suggested, "By the way, if Romney is to go where all the problems are, he's got to go to every Democrat congressional office. You want to go find out where there's unemployment, go find a Democrat. If you want to find out where the inner city is crumbling, go find a Democrat or go talk to Al Sharpton. America falling apart, unemployment line? Go to the White House."

Yes! Exactly. Which is why, for months, I have publicly urged team Romney to go to Washington and campaign in the belly of the beast. Go to the center of Barack Obama's government-centered society. Tear down the columns in government's temples.

Let Washington know that the next president of the United States is going to stop growing Washington's economy and grow America's economy. Let Washington know you are going to sell every other government building and replace them with three good websites. Let Washington know Kinko's better get some new copying machines because they will soon be printing a lot of old bureaucrats' resumes.

Let Washington know you are going to cut taxes and spending and take money out of its pocket, and put those dollars in the pockets of the American people, where they work, where they live, where they shop, where they invest, so we can grow this great economy bottom-up, naturally and organically, not top down, politically and artificially from Washington.

Let Washington know that the seeds of growth cannot flourish in the barren concrete of our capital. Only debt and inefficiency grow there. Tell them Mitt Romney is going to plant those seeds in the fertile soil of the American economy so we can renew the greatest economy in the world.

If Team Romney does, they will not only make news and drive social media in Ohio, as they might with a local rally, but they'll also make news in Ohio, plus every other swing state.

Our greatest American playwright, David Mamet, understands a little bit about storytelling. In his book, "The Three Uses of the Knife," he notes this: "The power of the dramatist, and of the political flack therefore, resides in the ability to state the problem."

Sometimes the best way to get a job is to start doing the job, not campaign for it. Two suggestions for Mitt Romney: Go where the problem is ... and kick the problem's butt. And every day, listen to an hour of Rush. It's good for what ails your campaign.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.

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