New and improved Romney

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  February 12, 2010

It's also hard to imagine that today's GOP base — with its Limbaugh dittoheads, Ron Paulites, and Tea Party protesters — will adhere to the hierarchical tradition that would dub Romney "next."

Besides, as Dennehy notes, frustrated voters looking for an antidote to a government they distrust are looking for a trustworthy leader — and trustworthy is not a word voters currently associate with Romney.

"I think voters are going to be looking more than ever for honesty and integrity," says Dennehy. "That was clearly one of [Romney's] biggest challenges in 2008, and it hasn't gone away."

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE? Romney’s strategy for capturing the GOP nomination, remarkably, includes writing off the Southern states, which will pledge 40 percent of the delegates to the 2012 Republican Convention.

Skipping the South
But if the populist conservatives are a tough crowd for Romney, they're nothing compared with the Christian conservatives. After courting them doggedly without success throughout the 2008 cycle, it appears that, in 2012, Romney is going to try to win without them. That, in effect, means skipping the South.

You can hardly blame him. Of the 28 caucuses and primaries Romney competed in two years ago, he finished worse than second in only six — which also happened to be six of the seven Southern states in which he ran. (He managed to finish second in Florida, a less culturally Southern state that he had hoped to win.)

It hardly seems possible to win the GOP nomination without the South, which holds tremendous weight in the process. Forty percent of the pledged delegates to the 2012 Republican convention will come from 13 Southern states (the 11 seceding "Dixie" states, plus Kentucky and Oklahoma).

"I just can't fathom the South not playing a role in picking the GOP nominee," says LaRaja, adding that, if Romney were to win without the South, "It would be a phenomenal strategic success story."

And yet, that seems to be the strategy. He has distanced himself in more ways than just retreating from the social issues critical to success with Southern Republicans.

Notably, Romney's PAC has started ignoring Southern pols. It contributed to not a single politician in Florida or Georgia last year, where it showered more than $30,000 over the previous four years. And in the crucial early-primary state of South Carolina, where Romney's PAC had doled out tens of thousands by 2006, it has written just one check in this cycle — to potential presidential foe Senator Jim DeMint.

As of this writing, Romney's full book-tour schedule was not available; its itinerary may be telling. But perhaps most revealing is Romney's decision not to attend this year's Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in April in New Orleans. Every other Republican with even a whiff of presidential aspirations will speak there — and it was at the 2006 SRLC that Romney made his first splash by besting McCain and others in a straw poll. (He finished second to then-senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, who had the home-field advantage for the Memphis event.)

This is all disappointing to his Southern supporters, but even they recognize the challenges he faces there. "There are going to be some people in the South who he's not going to be able to win over, because of his religion," says Cindy Costa, a South Carolina RNC committeewoman who supported Romney and hopes he runs again.

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