Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a growing John Kerry problem, and last night's CNN/YouTube debate underscored a stark reality the former Massachusetts governor faces as he battles for his party's nomination.
Kerry was famously dogged during a failed presidential run in 2004 by his equivocating statement on his position on the Iraq war—"I voted for it before I voted against it." It infuriated Kerry's Democratic base and provided endless fodder for Republicans to mock him as a flip-flopper.
Last night, immigration bickering with Rudy Giuliani aside, Romney was forced to explain yet again his recent conversions from supporting legal abortions to stridently opposing them and from endorsing gay rights to rejecting them in favor of a "family values" platform that appeals to the party's conservative evangelicals.
On abortion, Romney said, "I was wrong."
When moderator Anderson Cooper pressed Romney to say whether he still agreed with his own 1994 statement that he looked forward to a day when gays could serve in the military without controversy, he equivocated. Not at this time, during this war, Romney said, who added that though he initially thought the military's practice of "don't ask, don't tell" wouldn't work, he now believes it does.
But what about gays in the military in the future? Cooper persevered. Do you still look forward to that day you referred to in 1994?
Romney said he'd listen to his military advisers.
It was the same answer he gave when asked whether the interrogation practice called waterboarding constituted torture, which prompted an impassioned outburst from Sen. John McCain, who pronounced himself "astonished" that Romney was unable to state a position on the controversial simulated-drowning technique.
All this adds up to some difficult footing ahead for Romney. The race has heated up, the attacks sharper and more personal. And the question of what he really believes, and where he'll stand if elected, is bedeviling many conservative GOP voters—particularly those in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where Romney has staked his future. That uncertainty has contributed to Mike Huckabee's rise in the Iowa polls. Huckabee, an evangelical ordained minister, has also benefited from the migration to his campaign by evangelicals who supported Sen. Sam Brownback, who withdrew from the nomination race.
Republican voters in Iowa find Romney attractive on many levels—and he has consistently led in the polls there, although Huckabee is now within striking distance. But enough of them are uneasy about his turnarounds to make what early on looked like a cakewalk for the well-financed Romney in Iowa and, even, New Hampshire far from a sure thing. Endorsements from a handful of leaders in the conservative evangelical community have not made those niggling concerns disappear.
Near the close of the debate, Romney made a case for himself with a now familiar disparaging reference to Democrat Hillary Clinton and a pitch for himself as this campaign's Ronald Reagan. But when a candidate has a Kerry problem, winning will take straight, tough answers—and more than comparisons to a party icon.