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Monday, May 14, 2012

EDITORIAL

And then there were two

Mr. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, has virtually claimed the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. President Barack Obama in the November election. He prevailed in a grueling battle that took a toll on the candidate. Now, he must lick his wounds and refocus his energies on defeating the incumbent.

In most years, the odds would favor the challenger; "it's still the economy, stupid." This time, however, Mr. Romney has his work cut out for him.

While Mr. Romney went into the nomination process as the presumptive front-runner, it took him months to prevail over a colorful but weak field. Many of the most "electable" Republicans (at least those thought to be favored by the GOP establishment) such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declined to run.

In their place came a steady stream of high-profile candidates who quickly seized media attention and just as quickly deflated as the air went out of their campaigns. This list includes Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain, among others. The drawn-out campaign and the unending parade of challengers hurt Mr. Romney in two ways:

First, it forced him to tack hard to the right to win support from the conservative voters who make up the Republican base.

Second, and perhaps more significant, the candidates violated a long-standing rule of GOP politics first enunciated by the party's holiest figure, Ronald Reagan: "Never attack a Republican."

Rather than focusing on Mr. Obama, their shared enemy, the candidates went after Mr. Romney, trying to expose his weaknesses, and in some cases employing attacks that they think Mr. Obama will be very likely to use in the fall.

In theory, this baptism of fire could help Mr. Romney. His supporters claim the battle between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the top challenger in 2008, tested the nominee and prepared him for the fight against Republican. Sen. John McCain.

Few believe Mr. Romney will similarly benefit. The candidate has had much of his dirty laundry aired and there are few flaws that the public has not yet seen or remain to be exposed. But Mr. Romney still displays a remarkable tin ear, showing little indication that he has identified and is overcoming the flaws that were highlighted in the GOP nomination fight.

He remains a stiff and unsympathetic figure for many ordinary Americans, who associate him with money and privilege. His attempts to identify with the public usually come up short, most recently when he suggested that students just borrow money from their parents to start a business or when he said that he did not follow NASCAR — popular stock car racing — but he does know several team owners.

Having wrapped up the delegate fight — he will be named the official nominee at the GOP convention that will be held in Tampa Bay, Florida, in late August — Mr. Romney must now move back to the center to appeal to the mass of voters who classify themselves as independents and moderates, to have a chance in the November ballot. He will do this as the Obama team tries to paint him as a "severe conservative" (a quote from Mr. Romney himself) whose thinking is too extreme for those centrist voters, or a "flip flopper" whose views change depending on the audience.

Exhibit A in the latter case is the health care plan that Mr. Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts and which Mr. Obama has said served as a model for his health plan — a plan that Mr. Romney has said he would revoke on his first day as president.

Yet, even if Mr. Romney can sidestep claims that he changes position and can win back the center, he then risks losing the conservative vote that he courted during the nomination fight. The most damaging charge leveled against him from other GOP candidates was that he is not a true conservative; a tack to the center threatens to undo the progress he made among the right.

That he is a Mormon is also a problem for many supporters; that faith is viewed with suspicion by many evangelicals in the United States, and they make up a large block of Republican voters.

In theory, the November election is Mr. Romney's to lose. An incumbent U.S. president facing economic headwinds like those prevailing today — growth below 3 percent and unemployment in excess of 8 percent — is on shaky ground.

By contrast, Mr. Romney has a record of success as a business man, administrative triumphs as governor of Massachusetts and the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2002, and promises technical competence that he believes Mr. Obama lacks. Mr. Romney charges that Mr. Obama's policies have extended the economic downturn and delayed the recovery.

Ultimately, however, a victory for Mr. Romney depends on his appeal to two distinct groups: the moderate center and the hard-core conservative right. If winning one alienates the other, then Mr. Obama will claim a second term.

It will be a difficult balancing act whose outcome may depend on how badly the right wants the president out. If they believe that Mr. Romney is just a moderate in temporary conservative colors, they may decide to sit this election out.

Call it animus or ideological purity, but this thinking is the driving force in U.S. politics in this election year.



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