Mitt Romney: How Long Can He Steer Clear of GOP Craziness?


David Corn

Mitt Romney, the sort-of second-place finisher in the 2008 Republican presidential sweepstakes, is taking a different approach this year. Rather than trying to create an early splash, Romney is taking his time in declaring a presidential bid and, as The New York Times puts it, "is operating in a cautious, low-key fashion . . . with limited news coverage." The conventional view is that the former Massachusetts governor is doing so to avoid becoming the official front-runner -- a position that would place a large bull's eye on his back. But there may be another reason: He doesn't want to live in Crazy Land. And at the moment, the GOP nomination contest is chock-full of crazy.

A brief recap:

- Mike Huckabee, on a campaign book tour last week, focused on two messages: President Obama is really a Kenyan at heart who attended madrassas, not Boy Scout meetings, when he was a lad, and that's why he doesn't like the West, and Natalie Portman's engagement pregnancy is of national concern. When Americans are worried about the economic future of the nation, Huckabee was slight bit off-topic.

- In an absurd mini-drama last week, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and his aides put out conflicting signals about his 2012 intentions, signaling he would announce a presidential run, then that he would set up a committee to explore whether he should run. Finally, he held a press conference to declare . . . that he and his third wife, Callista, had set up a website dedicated to "exploring whether there is sufficient support for my potential candidacy." The bare-bones website had but one page: a sign-up page for potential supporters. "It was ridiculous," a former Gingrich aide told me. "This showed just how undisciplined and chaotic he can be. Not qualities you look for in a president. It was amateur hour." (By the way, months before Huckabee got into the act, Gingrich claimed that Obama's "Kenyan anti-colonial mindset governs the president's actions," which he claimed were "authentically dishonest" and "factually insane.")

- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a self-proclaimed tea party leader who says she's contemplating throwing her tricorne into the race, went on "Meet the Press" and once again declared that the Obama administration is a "gangster government." No matter what the question was, her answer was the same: Obama had supposedly hidden $105 billion in the health care bill. Once again, she looked more like a cult member than a possible commander-in-chief. (A few months ago, Bachmann falsely charged that Obama's five-day trip to India would cost $1 billion; the price tab was about 5 percent of that.)

- Tim Pawlenty, who once upon a time was a moderate Republican governor in Minnesota (who kind of supported the Wall Street bailout and backed cap-and-trade climate legislation), has been trying to transform himself into Mr. Tea Party and declaring that if he is elected he will repeal the repeal of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits out-in-the-open gays and lesbians from serving in the military (meaning he wants gay and lesbian GIs back in the closet).

- And there's Sarah Palin and all her utterances -- the latest being an attack on anti-union Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that didn't make much sense to conservatives. She also picked a fight with comedian Kathy Griffin. (Dave Letterman wasn't available?)

Who'd want to be lumped with these folks and all this nonsense? If Romney were in the race officially -- rather than proceeding with a low-flying operation -- he'd be grouped together with these other candidates and have to respond to their antics. Gov. Romney, do you think President Obama is a covert Kenyan? Gov. Romney, is Obama a gangster president? Gov. Romney, would you reinstate 'Don't ask, don't tell'? Gov. Romney, who's right -- Sarah Palin or Chris Christie? Sarah Palin or Kathy Griffin?

There's no way Romney could answer these sort of queries without either risking coming across as a wing-nut to independent voters or potentially ticking off right-wing voters who will make up much of the GOP primary electorate. (Romney already will have plenty of trouble explaining the mandates-imposing health care system he created in Massachusetts and his previous flip-flops on critical social issues.) As conservative columnist George Will noted the other day, Romney and other serious candidates are in jeopardy of nuttiness by association: "the [GOP] nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons."

On Monday night, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition held a forum for Republican presidential candidates. Who bothered to show? Gingrich, Pawlenty, former Sen. Rick Santorum (who's running as the social conservative candidate), former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. At the event, Gingrich assailed Obama's "secular, socialist" agenda. (Gov. Romney, do you think the president is a socialist?)

No wonder a Romney spokesman said, "He's not yet a candidate, so he's not doing a candidates' forum." Staying out of the race (in an official sense) keeps Romney out of the line of fire. It also allows him to maintain his distance from Republican looniness. At least for now. Eventually he's going to have to parachute into that hot zone, for the only path to the GOP nomination is through that Republican valley of weirdness.

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