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Mitt Romney: a steady Republican who can't pull ahead of the pack

6 min

A seasoned politician, businessman, and debater, Mitt Romney has conservative endorsements and solid poll numbers against Obama. But he has been unable to cement his frontrunner status within the Republican party. takes a closer look.


He has long been considered the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

An accomplished businessman, seasoned politician, and sharp, telegenic debater, Mitt Romney has picked up endorsements from conservative colleagues and held his own in polls pitting him against a President Obama besieged by a struggling economy and flagging approval ratings.

But just a month before the Republican primary season kicks off, the candidate has proven unable to cement his frontrunner status within his own party; rivals like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have taken turns topping Romney in surveys of Republican voter preferences.

The problem, according to political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, is a sense on the right that “Romney is bright and experienced, but appears to have little in the way of core beliefs or comfort on the campaign trail”.

A ‘steady’ alternative to Obama

Romney, a former governor of Massachussetts (2003-2007) and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, is a mainstream right-winger who has used his long resume of political and business leadership to shape his image as the inevitable nominee and the candidate most likely to unseat Obama in 2012.

It has largely been an effective strategy. “Romney’s been relatively steady, compared to others who have gone up and down,” assessed John Fortier, a political scientist at the non-profit Bipartisan Policy Centre. “He has a regular following among conservatives and businesspeople -- and he’s making the case that he’s a steady hand when it comes to economics and would be a fine alternative to a president who has struggled to improve the economy.”

Indeed, Romney’s Harvard business degree and background as owner and CEO of private equity firm Bain Capital could be of particular appeal to voters discouraged by high unemployment and slow growth.

The Obama campaign will likely portray the candidate’s tenure at the company as a period of lining rich executives’ pockets while laying off workers.

In the meantime, though, Romney is making a play not just for conservatives, but also for independents and disillusioned Obama supporters, by arguing that he knows how to do precisely what Obama has not done: create jobs.

‘Flip-flopping’, Romney’s Achilles’ heel

But Romney has been dogged by a perception of him as aloof and out of touch with the majority of Americans. Reports that he was dramatically expanding his lavish San Diego beach house garnered caustically tinged press coverage, as did footage of him telling a heckler in August: “Corporations are people, my friend”. The fact that Romney is a Mormon (he once traveled to France on a missionary trip) has also caused “discomfort among religious [Christian] conservatives”, according to Fortier – though polls have shown that even those Republicans bothered by Romney’s faith would largely support him against Obama.

Some of Romney’s attempts to bond with voters have fallen notably flat; on a campaign stop at a diner in New Hampshire, the candidate drew uncomfortable laughs when he pretended that a waitress had just pinched his bottom. Such occurrences have led The New York Times columnist Gail Collins to assert, “Never have we had a more uptight potential president”.

Expounding on that observation, Collins wrote: “This is all because he’s a big, huge, bundle - well, actually, a lean, well-exercised, impeccably groomed bundle - of contradictory positions whose history he cannot possibly justify without standing up and screaming: ‘Look, I’m running for office! I have to make things up!’”.

That scathing evaluation comes from a left-leaning journalist, but pundits across the political spectrum say Romney’s shifting stances on various topics over the course of his career pose a problem for conservatives – and partly explain why he has not yet squashed his competition for the Republican nomination.

During his 1994 Massachusetts Senatorial debates against Ted Kennedy, Romney declared himself an advocate of both reproductive rights and gay rights; now he’s staunchly pro-life and supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

His position on immigration has toughened significantly – amid revelations that he hired undocumented workers in 2006. Romney was once a fierce defender of free trade, but has recently proposed tariffs on Chinese products. He has expressed both agreement and disagreement with the 2008 bank bailout.

But it’s Romney’s creation, while governor of largely Democratic Massachusetts, of a state healthcare system requiring everyone to be insured that is seen as most emblematic of what critics call his “flip-flopping”. The reform implemented by Romney is said to have inspired Obama’s own sweeping nation-wide healthcare overhaul – the piece of legislation Republicans loathe most from the president’s time in office, and one Romney himself has slammed.

“There’s doubt about Romney’s fidelity to conservative positions,” Fortier said. “Some think he’s not committed enough to being an oppositional Republican, and the danger for him is that someone like Gingrich unifies the conservative vote.”

Fortier noted that if Romney wins the nomination, his past positions could help him with moderates and independents. But The New York Times reported Friday that an average of 17 surveys by Public Policy Polling found Romney’s favorability ratings among moderate voters to be an only middling 50%.

The inevitable nominee?

Meanwhile, Democrats are already treating Romney as the Republican nominee, painting him as a calculating, untrustworthy politician willing to switch his opinion to score votes; a Web video sponsored by the Democratic National Committee and entitled “Mitt vs. Mitt” starkly contrasts past and current statements by Romney on key issues.

The Obama campaign itself is suggesting that Romney’s pattern of adjusting positions is dangerous when it comes to foreign policy, an area widely viewed as a strong suit for Obama. A recent memo from one of the president’s re-election strategists read: “A Commander-in-Chief only gets one chance to get it right. But Mitt Romney has been on all sides of the key foreign policy issues facing our nation today.” The text pointed to contradictory or inconsistent statements by Romney about Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan.

Despite Romney’s inability to pull decisively ahead of the pack of Republicans vying for the nomination, analysts still view him as the candidate likely to face Obama – and, perhaps, to evict a president who has generated as much animosity as enthusiasm. “If Romney is the nominee, it will be a reasonably close race, but he would probably be the slight favorite,” Fortier predicted.

As one Republican who worked for Romney has said (on condition of anonymity): “Mitt is hard to love. But for the same reasons, he’s hard to hate.”

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