He had been considered the front-runner even before he declared his candidacy, but in the past few weeks, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is more often the runner-up.
Once the conservative Texas Gov. Rick Perry threw his cowboy hat into the ring for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, the seemingly more moderate candidate, Romney, has lost momentum in national polls. But while Perry's southern regional charm and conservative ideology certainly pose extra challenges for the once-on-top contender, Romney could still have plenty of time to make up the difference—even in the deep red South where the latest conventional wisdom seems to write him off.
As of Tuesday, according to the RealClearPolitics nationwide polling average, Romney trails Perry 18 percent to 23 percent. Former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, who's not even in the race yet, is next with 10.5 percent, followed by other more conservative candidates, like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who both average in single digits. Up against the rest of these top players, Romney, who has gained negative attention from conservative voters over some policies he's backed in the past, like Massachusetts' health insurance mandate, appears to be more to the center. In order to win the more conservative primaries, then, experts say Romney will have to work hard to convince voters that his commitment to conservative, small-government values is up to their standards, especially in states like South Carolina, considered to be the most to the right among the red states.
Up to now, it's left to be seen whether his campaign has decided play a strong primary game the South. Though he made headlines speaking in Texas on Tuesday, Romney has been spending more of his time recently in New Hampshire, where the first primary is expected to happen. His campaign announced Tuesday that on Labor Day, he'll be speaking to conservatives in the Granite State as a headliner for a Tea Party rally there rather than joining the other five top-polling GOP candidates at the Palmetto Freedom Forum the same day in South Carolina hosted by Sen. Jim DeMint and the American Principles Project. While Romney's planned absence at Freedom Forum event has led some to suggest that he might be ignoring the South, his campaign insists that's not the case and says he has other plans to visit South Carolina in September. His spokesperson, Andrea Saul, says the campaign wants "to win anywhere [his] name is on the ballot."
Some political analysts say that's entirely possible, but others have serious doubts. According to Jennifer Duffy, a political editor at the Cook Political Report, although Romney received endorsements from conservatives like DeMint in 2008, there are more conservative candidates out there, and the Tea Party has upped the ante. "If Romney stands a chance [in South Carolina], it's because other people imploded," says Duffy. "They've set a pretty high bar for conservatives in South Carolina. Bachmann crosses it. Perry crosses it. Now, I don't think that Romney crosses it."
South Carolinian Robert Oldendick, executive director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina, agrees that Romney doesn't quite match up to the more libertarian leanings of the state. "He doesn't have the kind of record in terms of conservative issue positions that really resonate with the primary voters that are going to turn out in South Carolina," Oldendick says. "Whoever that candidate is on the more conservative side of the Republicans will win this state."
In addition to political ideology, Romney's Mormon faith could pose a problem with some voters, though Oldendick suspects that won't be as big of an issue for him as his policies. Duffy also says regionalism is something that could work against Romney, especially with Texas-bred Perry in the race. People tend to like people who are most like them, she says, and for southerners who identify with place, that's not the East Coast businessman Romney. "Perry does get to be that southern candidate," says Duffy.
Still, others say that Romney shouldn't cut his losses just yet. One area where Romney could win over Perry in the months leading up to primary season is in the details, says Robert George, president of the American Principles Project. So far, most of the GOP candidates have been heavy on their limited-government, limited-spending rhetoric but rather skimpy on the particulars. As the 2012 primary draws nearer, candidates will be expected to clearly delineate what they would cut and why. "People are going to want specifics pretty soon from all the candidates, not just Romney. It's one thing to say, I'm for limited government, I'm for restricting the scope of government, and it's another thing to give the details," says George, adding that it will be important for Romney to state explicitly which federal departments and regulations he'd like to see go. Others, like Bachmann, Paul, and Perry, have already begun to make such targeted anti-federal-government pleas.
According to George, whose group is considered pretty conservative on the political spectrum, apart from "Romneycare," the former Massachusetts governor's overall record is more than acceptable for many Republican primary voters, even those in South Carolina and Georgia. Romney, says George, signed a pledge to defend traditional marriage, has staked out strong pro-life and limited government positions, and has exhibited impressive "turnarounds" in business and with the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics—all of which could help win over voters on the right. "It's almost always a mistake to underestimate one's own ability to make the case to conservative voters," he says. "Certainly, his policy positions are strongly conservative."
Also, if he can remain the so-called "establishment" pick, Romney would have the state's Republican primary voting history at his back, says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for former Utah Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman's 2012 presidential campaign. Though some would argue that the more conservative, out-of-the-box candidates are most electable in a state like South Carolina, Ayres recalls the "establishment" winners of the state's past four major GOP primaries—George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, and John McCain in 2008. "History suggests that the serious candidate with a long history of conservative accomplishments is usually the one that wins there, rather than the one who is trying to send a message or the one who is trying to shake up the establishment," he says. "Now, history is not destiny, and this year could be different, but the pattern in South Carolina is that a Mitt Romney or a Jon Huntsman kind of candidate is more likely to win than a Michele Bachmann or a Ron Paul, and it remains to be seen how Governor Perry positions himself."
Regardless of how things look now, Ayres says it's a serious mistake to make judgments yet about any primary, such as South Carolina, which is still as much as six months away. For Romney, then, and all others in the race, the southern states may be just as fair game as the rest.
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Updated on 08/30/11: Romney’s campaign has announced that he has changed his schedule and will now be attending the Palmetto Freedom Forum event in South Carolina. “We’re pleased we were able to arrange our schedule so that Gov. Romney can attend Labor Day events in both New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said in an E-mail to reporters on Tuesday afternoon.