The Republican frontrunner in the 2012 race for the White House is about to make it official. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will announce his candidacy Thursday from a farm in New Hampshire, an early voting state where he enjoys high ballot support and name recognition. This will be Romney's second run for the White House, and he starts with a strong organization and lots of cash. But he faces a difficult task: shifting the issue that seems to define him away from healthcare and towards the economy.
As governor, Romney signed into law a statewide healthcare plan in Massachusetts that looks a lot like the one Obama signed—right down to its individual mandate requiring everyone to have health insurance—and which Republicans have vowed to undo. While he now swears he will repeal Obamacare on day one of his presidency, Democrats and some GOP candidates will pummel him with the label "flip-flopper." But not just because of healthcare. He's switched his views to take a more conservative approach to gun rights, gay rights, and abortion—supporting abortion rights while campaigning for governor and opposing them during the 2008 presidential campaign. Healthcare, his opponents argue, reinforces this label.
Romney's Massachusetts plan is a departure from the fundamental Republican belief in a limited role for government. "The critique will be 'he didn't understand my concerns about individual freedom relative to the government' or 'the government take over implies things that scare me,'" says Mike Franc, vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "No one running in the Republican primary wants to be on the wrong end of the size and scope of government debate." It also suggests Romney has been left behind by the GOP on the issue of healthcare. "The whole Republican Party was in favor of the individual mandate as an alternative to a single payer plan," says Dennis Goldford, politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and co-author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: the Making of a Media Event. Then "the party ran away. And that's what Romney is trying to deal with there." [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Romney will face trouble in Iowa, where social conservatives and evangelicals aren't likely to forgive his support of an individual mandate and where they remain suspicious of his Mormon background. "He has to do a better job convincing conservatives that he is one of them," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "He is the defacto frontrunner but he's also a frail frontrunner." And with his support of the Massachusetts healthcare plan, "this isn't the kind of thing where you give a speech and it suddenly goes away." [See a slide show of who's in and who's out in the GOP 2012 primary.]
But as much as the healthcare issue will be a problem for Romney's candidacy, he still has ways to work around it, experts say. He has already started to hammer home the difference between state and national government and convince voters that the healthcare plan he supported in Massachusetts doesn't necessarily work on the federal level. "He's embraced what happened in Massachusetts and a lot of that gets back to the state versus federal allocation of power," says Franc. "He has to keep discussion of what he did in those terms: it's a much, much different proposition for the federal government to go down the path of a mandate, for example, than a state government. Then explain why."
Romney is already trying to explain the difference to the public. "What we did was to solve a very serious need that existed in our state," he told NBC earlier this week. "If I become president, I will repeal Obamacare on the first day I'm in office. My bill was 70 pages. His bill is 2,700 pages. In those extra 2,630 pages he's doing a lot of stuff that is just devastating to the healthcare system in this country." But that difference isn't as clear to rank and file Republicans and conservatives, says Rothenberg. "They are going to constantly ask him about that, force him to give the same explanation over again and they probably won't be entirely convinced." [Read Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin leading 2012 GOP field.]
Interestingly, though, many Iowa Republicans don't associate him with healthcare—at least not yet, according to a poll released by the Democratic Public Policy Polling. The survey of Iowa Republicans shows that while 63 percent of voters in Iowa say they will not support a candidate who supports even a statewide healthcare mandate, 13 percent of those voters also say they are supporting Romney. "Your average voter nine months out of the caucus isn't really thinking about that kind of thing," says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. "There is not a lot of awareness about Romney's healthcare record. Some folks that are very unhappy with him on healthcare will look at the rest of the Republican field and say, 'we'll forgive that misstep because he's the only guy that can really beat Obama.'" Goldford has noticed this in Iowa. "There is a sense on the one hand that it's beginning to speed up, but on the other hand you've still got a lot of folks who really don't know much about what's going on.
Romney's rivals will try to set the scene and educate voters on Romney's healthcare sign off. The challenge for Romney is whether he characterizes his campaign before they do, and so far, he has shown he could at least have the money to change the conversation. Last month, Romney's campaign raised $10 million in a single day. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has already conceded in the money race, telling NBC last week "We're not going to be the money champion in the race to start with. My friend, Mitt Romney, will be the frontrunner in that regard."
Indeed, money is really the issue Romney wants to campaign on, specifically the money the U.S. economy has lost on Obama's watch. As a former governor with a can-do reputation and as a multimillionaire businessman, Romney is positioning himself as the man who can restore America to prosperity. Romney "is smart and articulate and has a certain stature, you can imagine him as president of the United States," says Rothenberg. "He has a serious record of experience and accomplishment. He's the real deal. The question is whether conservatives will embrace him enough, and will he be able to get enough support from the evangelical community."
Some analysts say that while social conservatives are an important constituency in the GOP primaries, they may be too divided among other candidates, giving Romney an edge. "If he gets to be the moderate against five or six conservatives, he probably wins nomination" says Jensen. "He really does need that divided field." There could be enough conservatives running—like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul—to split up the vote. Cain and Paul have already entered the race, and Santorum is expected to announce early next week. Bachmann is leaning toward a White House run, telling an Iowa public television program she has "this calling and tugging on my heart that this is the right thing to do." She is expected to announce her decision soon in her birthplace of Iowa.
For now, the Romney campaign is still trying to figure out what to do with Iowa and whether to invest a lot of time and money there, considering he didn't do well there in 2008. "It was not a hospitable territory for them last time around," says Goldford. "They can't just not show up but why go somewhere where the deck is stacked against you?" Arguably John McCain didn't make a serious effort in Iowa last time and he won nomination." While Romney might turn social conservatives away on healthcare, he will try to attract them on jobs and the economy. "Jobs and economy remains the number one," says Sean Spicer, spokesperson for the RNC." It's a pocket book election. What voters are looking for is going to be a vision for the future."
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- Enjoy political cartoons about the 2012 Republican field.