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In new film, a dramatic look at Mitt Romney's loss of confidence

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Movies,Byron York,Barack Obama,Mitt Romney

This story was originally posted at 4:43 p.m. Jan. 18, 2014.

A new documentary about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney premiered Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The film, "Mitt," is an extraordinarily intimate look at the former Massachusetts governor as he ran for president twice, in 2008 and 2012. Director Greg Whiteley had impressed Romney with his 2005 documentary "New York Doll," which brilliantly chronicled a broken-down rock musician's conversion to Mormonism, and for the new film, Romney gave Whiteley unprecedented freedom to record behind-the-scenes moments as the candidate and his family endured the trials of two presidential campaigns.

Some of the film's themes are not exactly new. Yes, the Romney family is close. Yes, faith plays an important role in their lives. Yes, life on the trail can be exhausting.

But for viewers who follow politics closely, especially for Republicans who desperately wanted to defeat Barack Obama, there is a revelation in "Mitt" that is not just unexpected but deeply disheartening. At a critical moment in the campaign -- the two weeks in October encompassing the first and second general election debates -- the Romney portrayed in "Mitt" struggled with a nagging pessimism and defeatism, unable to draw confidence even from a decisive initial debate victory over President Obama. Deep down inside, the Romney seen onscreen in "Mitt" seems almost resigned to losing to Obama in those crucial showdowns.

It didn't start well. Team Romney went into the first debate bruised and reeling from the controversy over Romney's "47 percent" remarks. "Mitt" includes a scene from Romney's debate preparation in which Sen. Rob Portman, playing the president, used the controversy to nail Romney in a quiet but devastating way. The "47 percent" statement was so damaging, Portman/Obama argued, not only because it was made behind closed doors -- and thus represented Romney's true feelings -- but also because it was the foundation of Romney's policy proposals. Romney didn't have a very good answer.

On top of gloom about the fallout from "47 percent," there was a general fear in the Romney camp about Obama's debating skills. "We were really nervous, just thinking about President Obama," son Josh Romney said. "He's a great speaker and he has the mantle of the presidency."

In a family get-together before the debate, someone in the family noted that Romney had done well in many, many Republican debates. "Will this debate be different?" one son asked. "Will you be intimidated by the fact that [Obama] is president?"

"Sure," Romney said. "Are you kidding?"

"We shouldn't be intimidated," interjected wife Ann, sounding concerned. "You should not be intimidated by him. I am not kidding, Mitt."

"He's a very good debater," Romney said of Obama. "He's a lot better than the other guys." Nevertheless, Romney vowed not to back down from challenging Obama because as the Republican nominee he represented millions of voters who want a new president. "I'm going to stand up to this guy because he's taking us in the wrong direction."

Still, Romney worried that too much standing up, too much aggressiveness, would be mistaken for anger. When someone reminded him that sometimes a little anger is good, that it helped Romney smack down Newt Gingrich in the primary debates, Romney was still doubtful. "I'm good at smackdown if I have a piece of information I can smack them down with," Romney said. "If it's just who can out-verbalize someone else, I'm -- no."

There's no doubt Romney was concerned that he was facing someone who could out-verbalize him. Confidence was in short supply; as Romney and Ann left their hotel suite to go to the debate, Mrs. Romney said, "Let's get some dirge music, so Mitt's walking to his execution." There was a little nervous laughter, but not much.

Then came the debate. Romney gave a dominating, near-perfect performance, while Obama struggled. The president didn't even hit Romney on "47 percent." It was a smashing victory, a big, big win for Romney.

Such a clear-cut triumph would seem a huge confidence-builder, but afterward, Romney seemed mostly concerned that Obama would come back and beat him badly the next time. "Sitting presidents have a very hard time in these debates," Romney told the family. "They feel like, who is this whippersnapper coming up here who knows nothing? And so they don't prepare, and they just think they can waltz through it. Then they get crushed in the first debate, and then they come back."

"He'll be better next time," Ann said, as always trying to build her husband's confidence. "But you can be better next time, too."

Romney wasn't buying it. Instead, he went into an extended monologue on how his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was a better man than he will ever be. As he spoke, Romney held the notes he had made during the debate (candidates are not allowed to bring any notes with them to the stage, but are allowed to make them during the debate). Romney pointed out that in every debate he began by writing "Dad" at the top of the paper.

"That's what I start with: 'Dad,'" Romney explained. "I always think about Dad and about I am standing on his shoulders. I would not be there, there's no way I would be able to be running for president, if Dad hadn't done what Dad did. He's the real deal …"

"You're the real deal," said one of Romney's sons.

Romney didn't pause. "The guy was born in Mexico. He didn't have a college degree. He became head of a car company and became a governor. It would have never entered my mind to be in politics, how can you go from his beginning to think, I can be head of a car company, I can run for governor, I can run for president?"

Romney wasn't finished. "The gap — for me, I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education, Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School. For me it's moving that far" — Romney held two fingers close together — "for him, it's like that," Romney said, holding his arms wide apart.

Mitt Romney is an enormously accomplished man, both in private business and public service. He won his party's nomination for president. And he had just decisively beaten the sitting president in perhaps the most important moment of the campaign. And his reaction to that impressive victory was that 1) it was a fluke, a one-time deal; and 2) his father would have done better.

Romney seemed to take no confidence from the first debate to the second. In a family discussion two hours before that second meeting, on Oct. 16, 2012, he worried about moderator Candy Crowley, of CNN -- "Ohhhhh, that lady," said Ann Romney -- and talked about the difficulties of the town hall format, and of course about Obama himself.

"I'm just a little concerned that they've spent five days in debate prep," Romney said of the Obama team.

"He's going to be better than he was," said a Romney son. "There's no question he's going to be better than he was. He was a disaster last time and he will not be a disaster this time. You just do well yourself. Don't worry about it. Just be yourself."

"Dad, it wasn't like he just lost last time," said another son. "You won."

"Just do what you did last time."

After all that well-meaning advice, Romney began to show signs of overload. "My team thinks I've got to be the aggressor," Romney said of his professional campaign strategists. He complained that his top adviser, Stuart Stevens, said each answer had to accomplish several things. "Stuart says with each question you've got to make a connection with the person who asked the question. And No. 2 you've got to answer the question. And No. 3, you got to say the broader stakes. And No. 4 you've got to attack Barack Obama so he has to respond to you. And I'm like — I've got one minute!"

In the end, an over-coached and unsure Romney entered the debate hoping to play for a tie. "I look at it and say, hey, if we come out where people say he did a good job," Romney says, "our guys say we won, their guys say they won. Fine."

It turned out worse than that. Not only was Obama much better than the time before, but Romney hurt himself by mishandling his accusations concerning Obama's response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. On top of it all, Crowley mishandled things herself, nervously backing up Obama in a dispute she shouldn't have entered.

"How bad was it?" asked one Romney family member in the green room immediately after the debate, but before Romney himself had returned.

"It wasn't good," said another.

"Who briefed him on [Benghazi]?" one of the sons asked. "Someone got it wrong."

When Romney arrived, the family tried to buck him up. "Obama did a lot better this time," one said. "He did really well. You also did really well this time. It was not a win for him at all."

"I'll be it's 70-30 for him in the polls," Romney responded gloomily. "*80-20? 90-10?" The plan to play for a tie didn't work.

Romney complained about Crowley — "She kept interrupting me." Later, back at the hotel, after the family has gone over things, he tried to develop some perspective. "It was a difficult debate," he said. "It threw me off. I was like, OK, this is like your SAT when three questions in a row you don't know the answer to: 'Oh, no, I'm going to flunk out, my life is over.'"

If Romney did not come out of his first debate victory with renewed confidence, it goes without saying that he did not come out of his second debate loss with new confidence. "Mitt" does not even cover the third debate, which in its own way was no better for Romney than the second.

The film picks up on Election Day, with Romney making a final campaign swing. Flying into Boston for the night, he looked down and saw the city's traffic at a standstill. Someone said lots of roads were closed. Why? Romney asked. "The Secret Service has everything shut down as if you're the President of the United States," he was told.

"Queen for a day," Romney said to no one in particular, almost bitterly, and certainly without a trace of a smile.

That night, at his hotel suite, Romney was pessimistic after a string of early-state losses. When he heard the race was very close in Florida, he immediately saw bad news. "If it's a squeaker in Florida -- then Ohio, there's just no way."

Ann Romney mentioned that the campaign had had hopes for Michigan and Pennsylvania -- hopes that weren't turning out. Then Romney mentioned Wisconsin. "Oh -- that's probably gone, too," he said. And it was.

As defeat settled in, Romney discussed what to say in a concession speech — which, for all his natural pessimism, Romney had not considered ahead of time. And it was in that moment that some of Romney's passion about the race finally came out, far from the view of voters and television cameras. Stevens suggested that the losing candidate should play an almost "pastoral" role, "soothing" the American people after a long and divisive campaign.

"I don't think it is a time for soothing and everything's fine," said Romney. "I think this is a time for [saying], 'This is really serious, guys. This is really serious.'"

"To get up and soothe is not my inclination," an obviously anguished Romney continued. "I cannot believe that [Obama] is an aberration in the country. I believe we're following the same path of every other great nation, which is we're following greater government, tax rich people, promise more stuff to everybody, borrow until you go over a cliff. And I think we have a very high risk of reaching the tipping point sometime in the next five years. And the idea of saying 'it's just fine, don't worry about it' -- no, it's really not."

Given what has come before it in the film — Romney's defeatism in the debates — the scene leaves the impression that perhaps in his heart of hearts Romney never really believed he could win. That also seems the message of one of the last scenes of "Mitt," the day after the election, when Romney addressed staff at his Boston campaign headquarters. The old lack of confidence came out again as Romney suggested he never felt comfortable in the race. He passed on something someone at headquarters had told him: "In some ways, we kind of had to steal the Republican nomination. Our party is Southern, evangelical and populist. And you're Northern, and you're Mormon, and you're rich. And these do not match well with our party."

A candidate who did not believe he could beat the president in debate, who always felt second-best to his father, who believed the country was moving away from him, and who didn't even feel at home in his own party. The Romney campaign faced many uphill battles in the 2012 campaign. "Mitt" shows us that some of the most intense were in the candidate's mind.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner