Mitt Romney’s attempt to follow George W. Bush’s formula to the Republican presidential nomination — privately raising money from business leaders while publicly selling himself to social conservatives — has hit a snag. Although the fundraising has rolled along nicely, Romney spent most of February on the defensive against right-wingers who aren’t buying his relatively recent conversion to their causes.
The hits have come fast and furious, starting with videos on YouTube of Romney defending his pro-choice views, in debates with Ted Kennedy, in 1994, and Shannon O’Brien, in 2002. It also emerged that he joined the National Rifle Association just last year — after long-time support for an assault-weapons ban, waiting periods on gun sales, and even the so-called Brady Bill, which required criminal background checks on handgun purchasers. Romney’s past support of stem-cell research and his current support of research using existing embryos recently led conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly to write that Romney “is not pro-life, and no one should say that he is.”
Romney has even started backing away from the Massachusetts health-care-reform law he previously boasted of, as it has been criticized on the right as anti-business, anti-free-market, and anti-libertarian.
It all led to a Newsweek feature last week titled “Governor Romney, Meet Governor Romney.”
Although very early in the nomination process, this could be a critical juncture for Romney. If he can’t make some inroads with the right soon, someone else will steal his claim as the conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
Romney’s political opponents smell blood, and would love to permanently cripple him. His strengths as a candidate — his formidable fundraising base, his charm on the stump, and his excellent organization in Iowa and other early-voting states — make him both a threat and a target.
And those other GOP candidates — front-runners Giuliani and McCain, as well as those wishing to replace Romney as the conservative alternative — have clearly drawn the same conclusion that Romney’s own strategists did, as revealed by the Boston Globe this week.
When plotting their course last December, the Globe reported, his advisors wanted to emphasize perceptions of Romney as a “strong leader,” and a “get-it-done, turnaround, CEO Governor.”
What they didn’t want, according to the same report, was to spend 2007 facing skepticism about Romney’s conservative message. Which is exactly what he’s been forced to do so far — thanks in large part to other candidates, who have been feeding anti-Romney material to conservative bloggers, the US News & World Report reported last week.
It’s working. Romney’s poll numbers are stalled at a meager five percent — miles behind McCain and Giuliani — in the critical state of South Carolina, site of the first Southern primary. Many on the right are actively shopping for an alternative. A group of “prominent conservatives” have even tried to recruit South Carolina governor Mark Sanford to enter the race, the New York Times reported last weekend.