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.
In hopes of regaining his footing, Romney is renewing efforts to sell himself to conservatives. He recruited a top pro-lifer, James Bopp Jr., as a “special advisor on life issues.” Bopp penned an editorial on National Review Online last week called, “Why Social Conservatives Should Support Mitt Romney for President.” This weekend in Virginia, Romney will attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), one of the oldest and best-attended annual events of the conservative movement. After that he’ll be at the powerful Club for Growth’s winter conference. And in two weeks, a sympathetic biography of Romney — written by one of the biggest names in the right-wing gab-o-sphere: Hugh Hewitt, syndicated talk-radio host and executive editor of the conservative blog site Townhall.com — will hit the newsstands.
But this counter-offensive carries its own risk. By getting drawn further into a fight over his conservative beliefs on abortion, gay marriage, gun control, stem-cell research, and similar issues, some argue, Romney gets further away from his strengths as a candidate.
“He didn’t lead with his strengths, he’s led with his weakness,” says Craig Shirley, a veteran political consultant and board member of the American Conservative Union (ACU). “Romney should have come as the outsider with a strong economic message.”
“You have got to have a very specific message right now,” says a New Hampshire Republican strategist close to the Romney campaign. “Romney has a message, but the campaign doesn’t seem to be articulating it very much.”
Instead, Romney will now spend the next few weeks trying to convince people of the sincerity of his ideological conversions — which is likely to make those beliefs seem even more contrived, Shirley warns. “He’s got to stop reinventing the reinvention of himself.”
Romney’s defenders are trying to turn his lemons into lemonade, arguing that the attacks are a deliberate attempt by the liberal mainstream media to sabotage their candidate, which will only endear Romney to the right.
“The mainstream media has no credibility with the center-right electorate,” says Hewitt, in an interview with the Phoenix that he insisted be conducted live on his radio show. “The more that Romney gets attacked by the MSMers, the better off he is.”