When former Governor Mitt Romney spoke at the Family Research Council's "Values Voters Summit" in Washington about 10 days ago, he came in a distant second place in a straw poll behind his archenemy, Mike Huckabee. And he only narrowly beat out former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in an event that signaled the unofficial start of Romney's 2012 GOP primary campaign. In fact, he never seemed to stop running. The night before speaking, he hosted an event called Sundaes with Mitt.
But the summit poll showed the steep hill Romney has to climb over the next three years and was, no doubt, a coup for Huckabee, the GOP candidate of 2008 who made a strong start in the Iowa Republican caucus but dropped out after it became apparent that Sen. John McCain would get the nomination.
"He is well-oiled,'' Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said of Huckabee. "He came back with a strong message, and I don't think he missed a beat from the presidential campaign last year.''
During his speech, Huckabee threw an obvious elbow at the health care plan Romney instituted in Massachusetts, echoing the charge that "the only thing inexpensive about the Massachusetts health care bill is that there you can get a $50 abortion.''
Huckabee's suggestive line made obvious what many might have assumed about another Romney presidential run. He should expect to encounter many of the same obstacles as last time, namely scores of conservatives who have what some describe as an irrational disdain for Mitt Romney.
For example, in preparation for Romney's speech, Gregg Jackson, author of "Conservative Comebacks to Liberal Lies," fired off a harsh missive to conservative leaders, chastising the Family Research Council for even inviting Romney to speak at the Values Voters Summit.
Jackson, formerly a radio host on WRKO in Boston and KDAR in Los Angeles, wrote in his e-mail, "Despite Romney's unbiblical and far left-wing record as governor on the issues FRC claims to care the most about, FRC President Tony Perkins continues to refer to Romney as a 'friend of the pro-family movement.' "
To voice his displeasure at Perkins, Jackson also helped launch the Web site www.tonyperkinstellthetruth.blogspot.com.
Jackson, whose name appears at the bottom of the e-mail, confirmed his involvement. A disclaimer at the bottom of the blog reads: "This letter was composed and released by 'Conservatives For Truth,' an ad hoc group including Steven Deace, Gregg Jackson, Dr. Earle Fox, Phil Magnan, and John Haskins and others (see affiliations above). Countless state-level and grassroots leaders have not been listed in the interest of brevity."
Jackson's e-mail to conservative leaders criticizes Romney for championing a health care plan that offers an abortion for a $50 co-pay, and asks if "$50 elective abortions sound like a policy signed into law by a 'friend of the pro-family movement'?"
Such attacks are nothing new to Mitt Romney. He has grown accustomed to being a divisive figure who simultaneously garners huge support from many leading conservatives while generating a visceral anger from others.
As conservative conclaves begin to invite potential 2012 contenders, Romney enters into a dangerous stage of his nascent campaign. Just as Jackson's e-mail was prompted by Romney's invitation to speak at a conservative event, Romney's attendance at past events always seemed to provoke news and controversy. To understand what Romney is likely to face in 2012, it's instructive to recall the obstacles he faced in 2008.
During the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the attacks reached an absurd level when a video surfaced on the Web, accusing Romney aide Jordan Sekulow of committing "vote rigging" during the CPAC straw poll. The video showed no evidence of any irregularities, and Romney won the 2007 CPAC straw poll.
In fact, it was at the 2008 CPAC event that Romney surprised the audience by announcing he was dropping out of the presidential race. Nevertheless, he won the coveted CPAC straw poll that year as well.
According to Sekulow, it was Billy Valentine, a member of a group called "Students for [Kansas Sen. Sam] Brownback," holding the camera in that 2007 video. Sekulow said of Valentine, "He made this comment in my ear once. He said, 'Once I put this online, you're through with.' "
Sekulow also said he thought Valentine was responsible for donning the "Flipper the Dolphin" costume that year at CPAC. The goal, of course, was to heckle and intimidate Romney by having this dolphin character follow him around at a time when Romney was trying to shed the image of "flip-flopper" on the abortion issue.
"I wouldn't be surprised if [the dolphin] was Billy Valentine or the people he was directing," Sekulow told me, "based on the fact that he was following me around with a video camera."
From "Flipper the Dolphin" to the recent uproar over his speech at the "Values Voters Summit," few candidates (save for maybe Sarah Palin) have endured so much animosity so early in a campaign.
Whether the reason is anti-Mormon bigotry, political chicanery orchestrated by an opponent, jealousy over his perfectly coiffed head of hair, or legitimate concerns over his past positions (ranging from abortion to health care), Mitt Romney never ceases to arouse anger from certain corners of the conservative movement.
When it comes to winning the 2012 GOP nomination, Mitt Romney is clearly a front-runner, if not the front-runner. But it is also clear that there will be a long, nasty road on the way to the GOP nomination.
The 2012 fun is already starting on the conservative side of the aisle, and it's only 2009.