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Campaign 2012: Watch Out for Mitt Romney!

4 years ago
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It's two weeks before the 2010 elections. Which means now's a fine time to start obsessing about the 2012 campaign.

The next presidential race will unofficially begin on No. 3 -- the day after the midterm elections. It's possible we may not know the outcome of all the critical House and Senate races by then, and these races could determine which party controls the House and Senate. But once most of the 2010 votes are counted, the politerati will quickly pivot toward the next big thing. So let me get an early jump and tell you this: watch out for Mitt Romney.

I'm not predicting he'll be the winner in the GOP's wide-open 2012 nomination face-off, which could be wild and wooly (and paradisiacal for political journalists). But though Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who was vanquished in 2008 by John McCain, is often discounted by the commentariat in the pre-preseason chatter, there are plenty of reasons for Mittiacs to be hopeful.

First, the obvious liabilities. He's a Mormon who has flip-flopped on social issues, trading his more moderate views for getting-right-with-Republican-primary-voters stances, and as governor he signed into law a health care reform plan inconveniently similar to what President Barack Obama and the Democrats enacted this year. To sum up, he's a mandate-embracing political opportunist. In 2002, he declared he supported abortion rights. In 2008, he proclaimed he was an abortion opponent. He's made 180s on gay rights and gun control. But each of Romney's flips (or flops) were in the direction of the GOP's base. And, to take a cynical but perhaps pragmatic view, his deftness in shifting on these fundamental issues is a sign he might just be able to sidestep his health care problem. (Conservatives have called on Romney to apologize for RomneyCare; Bay State Republicans defend the original legislation and claim the subsequent Democratic administration in Massachusetts ruined the program.)

As for Romney and God, evangelical Christians, who make up a hefty chunk of GOP primary voters, can be rather suspicious of Mormonism. Amy Sullivan in The Washington Monthly in 2005 dissected Romney's religious roadblock, noting that that as recently as 2004, "Mormons were specifically excluded from participation in the National Day of Prayer organized by Shirley Dobson (wife of James Dobson, leader of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family) because their theology was found to be incompatible with Christian beliefs." No doubt, Romney's opponents will do what they can under the table (if not above it) to whip up anti-Mormon sentiment. But given that Romney has become quite familiar to GOP voters, it's possible the Mormon bite may not sting so much.

What Romney has going for him is this: the economy. There's no telling what the political weather will be like in 2012. (On January 20, 2009, who foresaw such a dramatic change in the political mood as the one the nation has experienced in the past eighteen months?) But it sure seems that the economy is not improving quickly and that hard times are likely for the next few years. Of the current GOP 2012 wannabes, Romney talks the economy the best. His ideas are not much different from the usual Republican fare--cut taxes (including those on the rich like him), cut regulations, and you know the rest. But as a former CEO (who could play a former CEO on a soap opera), Romney sounds like a guy who understands business. And if voters sour on Obama's government-can-help approach, they may well turn toward a business-knows-best message (even if the nation is in a slump because of greedy corporatists who rigged the financial system in their favor and screwed the rest of us). Can Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, or Newt Gingrich come across as more knowledgeable on the nitty-gritty of the economy?

Until recently social conservative voters have dominated the GOP primaries. But if these voters are hurting because of the lousy economy, they may be less inclined to base their votes on a candidate's consistent commitment to their favored social causes. Romney's flip-flops may be sufficient -- if these voters are seeking someone who can lead on economic matters.

Romney also has experience in his favor. In the last 13 elections -- going back to Nixon-Kennedy in 1960 --10 of the GOP nominees have been candidates who have previously run for president or vice president. Palin and Huckabee both were national candidates in 2008 (though Palin, a prisoner of the McCain crew, earned no experience overseeing a campaign of her own). Other potential GOP contenders have no first-hand idea what running a national presidential campaign truly entails. This includes Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, John Thune, Rick Santorum, Pawlenty and Gingrich. (Feel free to add Donald Trump into this mix.) Romney, good CEO-type that he is, undoubtedly learned much from 2008 that will give him a leg up in 2012.

In 2008, Romney finished third place in the Republican delegate vote count, slightly behind Huckabee. But he was the second biggest vote gatherer in the field, bagging 22.1 percent of the GOP primary and caucus vote, while McCain attracted 46.5 percent. This time around, Romney starts with a bigger bloc than Huckabee, and with the economy in a shambles; his candidacy has more of a rationale than a Huckabee rerun. And then there's the 800-pound grizzly in the room: Palin. Should she run, she and Huckabee would be in a death-cage fight for the social cons (and any evangelicals who are anti-Mormon). If they split that group, Romney will have an opening.

Romney is no Tea Partier. But he has the chameleonesque talent to figure out how to tailor his sales pitch -- downsize government, rev up the free market -- to appeal to this libertarian-leaning slice. At the same time, he will be able to go after those non-Tea Party Republicans who yearn for a candidate who's not so yahoo-ish. (I'm assuming there are still Republicans of that stripe.) And he'll have enough money to run. These days, Romney is spreading around a lot of his political cash, supporting 2010 GOP House and Senate candidates. (He also turned his recent book on foreign policy into a bestseller by asking conservative organizations to purchase thousands of copies in exchange for Romney speeches. How underhanded -- or savvy.)

To bag the nomination, Romney will have to walk a fine line -- so will any GOP candidate (except maybe Palin, who will rise or fall as a moose in a china shop). Are there too many pitfalls for Romney to straddle? Perhaps, but the same can be said for any in the GOP potential-POTUS pack. One of these very imperfect candidates is going to win -- despite his or her much-detailed imperfections.

Again, this is no prediction. I try to eschew that form of punditing. Days after Christine O'Donnell won the GOP Senate primary in Delaware, Chris Matthews tried to bet me on air that she'd win the general election. I foolishly said, who knows? Instead of, "You're on -- one thousand dollars." I do believe the punditerati is unwisely shorting Romney at the moment. But, please, don't invest in him on my advice.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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