GOP's fragile front-runner
Mitt Romney polishes his image, but what about all his positions?
Originally published April 24, 2011: Open-necked checkered sport shirt? Check. Strategically mussed hair? Check. Gap skinny jeans? Check. Visit to NASCAR pits at Daytona? Check.
Mitt Romney is airbrushing his image as he runs for president again, determined not to repeat the mistakes of his 2008 campaign, when he was seen as starchy and too perfect, a Ken doll born in Brooks Brothers pinstripes, unable to relate to regular voters.
The former Massachusetts governor is the Republican front-runner. This isn't his first rodeo; he has the deepest fund-raising network and contacts in every primary state at the precinct-committee level. Most important, the national economic and fiscal debate seems to play to his resumé as a private-equity executive, skilled at turning around troubled companies.
And yet, for all that, he is a fragile leader of the GOP field. The main problem: Romney has had more positions than the Kama Sutra.
When he ran for Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, Romney portrayed himself as an unshakable supporter of abortion rights and in favor of stem-cell research. Eight years later, when he was elected governor, Romney was a promoter of civil unions for same-sex couples.
But as he geared up to run in 2008, facing skepticism about his early moderation and Mormon faith from evangelical Christians, Romney steered right. He spoke of illegal immigration, gun control, morality, his faith in Jesus Christ as his personal savior and, of course, the coarsening of American society brought about by access to abortion.
"I am pro-family on every level, from personal to political," Romney told the Value Voters summit in October 2007. He pledged to nominate only anti-Roe Supreme Court justices and said he would "oppose abortion in military clinics, oppose funding abortion in international aid programs, and I will work to ban embryonic cloning."
This was the same Mitt Romney who in the race against Kennedy argued for women's right to choose by citing a relative who had died after an illegal back-alley abortion before Roe v. Wade. "We will not force our beliefs on others on that matter," Romney said then. "And you will not see me wavering on that."
Rivals mocked Romney's flexibility, including the urbane executive's claim that he was an avid hunter of "varmints." In one 2008 TV debate, Romney was needling Mike Huckabee for unfairly characterizing his position. "Which one?" Huckabee shot back, and the camera froze on a grimacing Romney. Later, John McCain said, his voice oozing with sarcasm: "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."
Despite spending millions to dominate the advertising airwaves, Romney lost Iowa and New Hampshire, where he owns a lakeside vacation home, and watched McCain's ascension from the sidelines.
If 2012 were a normal election cycle, Romney would be sitting pretty. The social wedge issues are muted, and he is the establishment's favorite in a Republican Party that historically turns to the candidate "next in line." But the center of gravity in the GOP right now is with the fervently antiestablishment tea-party activists, and they're not too keen on Romney.
Perhaps his biggest liability is the Massachusetts health-care plan he signed into law in 2006, a pragmatic market-based approach straight from Heritage Foundation white papers. But that law requires people to buy medical insurance or face penalties - a provision just like the one conservatives hate in Obama's national program, which they have vowed to repeal.
So Romney has been disowning his work for months, arguing that, although his policy makes sense for Massachusetts, Congress' application of it to the entire country violates the states' rights enshrined in the 10th Amendment.
Still, the issue hangs around like Pigpen's dirt cloud. Health care is for Romney what voting to authorize the Iraq war was for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic contest, a position anathema to the base.
"Every day he has to say what a terrible job he did on his signature accomplishment," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said recently.
Romney advisers say he will prevail by keeping a tight focus on jobs and the economy, refusing to get bogged down in loaded questions about Mormon theology or to dwell on social issues.
Indeed, Romney announced his candidacy with a tweet, a Facebook posting, and a video on his website, on April 11, overshadowing the next day's fifth anniversary of his health-care law. The message was all jobs.
Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or email@example.com. Read his blog "The Big Tent" at philly.com/BigTent.