By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Michael Steele has been roundly criticized (again) and has issued (another) sort-of apology, this time for comments he made about Mitt Romney's presidential bid. Sitting in for conservative radio host Bill Bennett, the Republican National Committee chairman challenged a caller who suggested Romney would have made a better presidential nominee than John McCain:
Remember, it was the base that rejected Mitt because of his switch on pro-life, from pro-choice to pro-life. It was the base that rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism. It was the base that rejected Mitt because they thought he was back and forth and waffling on those very economic issues you're talking about.
The remarks triggered a counterpunch from Romney and disapproval from much of the conservative establishment. It's bad form to accuse the GOP base of being anti-Mormon, not to mention telling someone that his religion is a political impediment.
But Steele's analysis strikes me as pretty solid.
Romney was defeated last year by Mike Huckabee, who rode the GOP's evangelical base—which Romney so assiduously courted—to victory in Iowa and in a slew of Southern states that Romney needed to challenge McCain from the right. A December 2007 Pew poll showed that evangelical voters were the most skeptical in the electorate toward a Mormon candidate, with 1 in 3 expressing reservations about supporting one.
I interviewed a long list of conservative evangelical leaders, meanwhile, who were unconvinced by Romney's evolution from social liberal to abortion-rights foe.
Romney backers argue that absent Huckabee, the GOP primaries look totally different. But won't there always be a Huckabee, a Sarah Palin, or a George W. Bush who has an overwhelming advantage among evangelical voters? If you think so, then Steele's gaffe contained a fair bit of truth.