These are some of the most influential conservatives in the country, and they and many of their peers are at the CPAC conference in Virginia as you read this, auditioning the GOP candidates — all of whom, except McCain, plan to attend.
For movement conservatives, pressure is mounting to find a candidate while there is still time for someone — Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback, Tommy Thompson, or someone else — to build a competitive campaign. “Unless major elements of the conservative coalition unite behind somebody other than Giuliani, McCain or Romney, then that candidate will not be able to put the organization and funding together,” says Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s Republican National Committeeman and an ACU board member.
Conservatives’ rush to find an acceptable candidate to rally around is also about to accelerate, some suggest, because of a major problem for McCain: Democrats in the US Senate plan, possibly this week, to reintroduce the Kennedy-McCain immigration-reform bill that sent conservatives into a national tizzy last year. That will propel McCain’s heretical immigration position (he doesn’t want to arrest and/or deport them) back into the forefront of right-wing political talk — and increase the urgency of preventing him from getting the nomination.
Like many others, Blackwell has not decided whom to support — though he knows it won’t be McCain. He also says that he has been approached for advice by several presidential candidates vying for the conservative mantle, but not, to date, by Romney.
It’s quite possible, given the weaknesses of the other candidates, that many conservatives will ultimately decide that Romney is their man. But the battle for that support could be doing serious damage to his chances at the White House. “I think he’s gone overboard to the right in trying to get conservative support,” says the New Hampshire Republican strategist.
He’s only heading further in that direction, judging by his upcoming schedule of conservative gatherings and campaign appearances in Southern states.
And the release of Hewitt’s book will only ensure that Romney’s religion and social conservatism remain hot topics among Republican activists. Hewitt, who has not endorsed Romney but says he would be a great president, stands ready to launch a PR offensive to promote the book (already being pre-sold through the Conservative Book Club and elsewhere) — and Romney.
But the New Hampshire Republican strategist argues that, by becoming so publicly defined by his most conservative positions, he has undermined a trait that made him an attractive candidate in the first place: electability.
Romney has long argued, both publicly and in meetings with potential contributors, that he is the one conservative who can appeal to independents and moderates in a general election. He is, after all, the guy who got elected in that bluest of states, Massachusetts. But now he has renounced the version of himself that got him elected in 2002. The new Romney is an extremist on a whole slate of issues.
If Romney loses his aura of electability, it could hit him where it hurts most — the pocketbook. So far, the pandering and rightward shifts have not hurt Romney’s fundraising juggernaut, say those close to the campaign. But, unlike many conservative ideologues, who favor principle over pragmatism, the business and finance executives who contribute the vast bulk of Romney’s campaign funds are looking for someone who can win the White House, not just the nomination.