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Can Mitt win?

Romney’s chances of winning the GOP presidential nod hinge on conservatives’ hatred of John McCain
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 21, 2006

To understand why Mitt Romney’s dream of capturing the Republican presidential nomination is not far-fetched, you first have to understand what Rudy Giuliani is doing — or rather, not doing. You may have heard that by establishing an “exploratory” presidential committee last week, Giuliani took a major step toward running.

But some analysts and Republican insiders doubt that Giuliani is really planning to run for president. He’s just not that stupid: he does not imagine that Republican primaries can be won by a pro-choice, pro-gun-control New Yorker who moved in with a gay couple when his wife kicked him out of the mayor’s residence for having an extra-marital affair.

Giuliani’s exploratory committee likely has a more short-term, pragmatic purpose: replacing his Solutions America political-action committee as the vehicle that pays him and his staff to travel around the country, speaking and raising money for himself and others. And, to maintain his A-list national profile.

The Giuliani diversion gives the impression that Romney is running a very distant third behind Rudy and Arizona senator John McCain. Take Giuliani out of the equation, and that leaves McCain apparently home-free.

Not so fast. “Movement conservatives” — the type who gather at Grover Norquist’s famous weekly breakfast meetings at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters on L Street in Washington — despise John McCain. Loathe him. Would do anything to stop him.

One GOP operative was at one of those Norquist gatherings when the talk turned to ’08 presidential politics. “To a person, they hate McCain,” he says.

So far, no single candidate has emerged to lead the anti-McCain consensus — but Romney could easily end up the last one standing.

“There are three or four Republicans — and four is being generous — one of whom will be the nominee, and Romney is one of them,” Norquist says. “The non-McCain vote right now goes to Romney.”

Moving right
To woo those conservatives, Romney has staked out a position in the GOP presidential field akin to that of George W. Bush, without the taint of Washington. He supports the Iraq war as a necessary part of the war on Islamist-fueled terror. He has embraced social conservative causes by shifting to a strict pro-life position, denouncing stem-cell research, and, of course, bashing same-sex marriage. And Romney is on even steadier ground with what you might call the corporate wing of the Republican Party, which is looking for a pro-business, small-government, anti-regulation, low-tax candidate.

“Romney can speak two languages — he can speak to the religious conservatives and to the corporate board members,” says Ray LaRaja, a political-science professor at UMass Amherst.

That all looks good on paper, but not everybody’s buying it. “Nobody in the party movement establishment thinks of him as a conservative,” says David Carney, a political consultant with Norway Hill Associates in Hancock, New Hampshire, and former political director for George H.W. Bush. “You can’t be a conservative and take an inconsistent position on abortion.”

As for his economics positioning, Romney earned a mere “C” grade from the Cato Institute in its new ratings of governors’ fiscal conservatism. The report called Romney’s no-new-taxes claim “mostly a myth,” and warned of “massive costs to taxpayers that his universal health care plan will inflict.” Further, Romney’s limited government experience gives conservatives little to judge him by, and he’s never been the kind of intellectual heavyweight who builds a reputation by penning articles for right-wing think tanks.

As a result, he has tried to prove himself by association — getting people known to movement insiders to sign on with his political-action committee, Commonwealth PAC. Names like Barbara Comstock mean little to the average voter, but they matter to right-wing insiders. Romney also has two top former aides of Jeb Bush, as well as George W. Bush’s former top domestic speechwriter on his payroll. And many other solid conservatives populate his “steering committees” in early-voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

“He and McCain have the strongest group of supporters,” says Nancy Dwight, former executive director of the Republican National Congressional Committee and a member of Romney’s New Hampshire and national steering committees.

Romney is also eagerly wooing the “Pioneers” and “Rangers” who raised money in bulk for Bush — to prove his fundraising ability, but also to demonstrate his conservative appeal. His successes include Robert Congel in New York, Dwight Decker and Kenneth Satterlee in California, Lewis Eisenberg in New Jersey, Sam Fox in Missouri, Chris Jenny in Massachusetts, David Johnson in Michigan, Stanley Phillips in North Carolina, and Malcolm Pray in Connecticut, all of whom contributed to Commonwealth PAC.

All these moves are intended to create the impression that Romney is the viable conservative in the race. Two years ago, he was one of a large crowd angling for that role; but the ranks have been thinning rapidly.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Mitt Romney , John McCain , Rudolph Giuliani ,  More more >
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