A Massachusetts Conservative
Mitt Romney is walking a political tightrope in his run for the White House
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C.-In his stump speech to supporters gathered among the shrimp boats on the bank of Shem Creek, Mitt Romney makes no mention of hot-button issues like abortion or the role of religion in politics. But when the speech is finished, the Republican presidential hopeful is swarmed by reporters asking only hot-button questions: Will conservative voters believe that the formerly pro-choice ex-governor of Massachusetts is now antiabortion? How did he make the conversion? Will evangelical Christians back a devout Mormon like Romney?
Romney, in a tailored suit and flawlessly coiffed hair, insists that voters are more concerned with other issues, like "How are we going to beat the jihadists? How are we going to be competitive with Asia? How to improve our schools and healthcare."
And yet answering those hotter-button questions may hold the key to whether Romney has a shot at winning the Republican nomination. Romney has so far sold himself as the more conservative alternative to front-runners John McCain, who riled many conservatives by supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and opposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and likely contender Rudolph Giuliani, a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights. In doing so, however, Romney is battling his own past. He admits to being "effectively pro-choice" as recently as two years ago. "Voters can respect a politician who changes parties," says Republican strategist Scott Reed. "But it's more difficult for a politician that changes philosophies."
Competition. While convincing social conservatives that he has become one of them, Romney must also develop broad enough appeal to be seen as truly competitive with McCain and Giuliani. A CNN poll last week had Romney winning support from just 7 percent of Republican-leaning voters, compared with 32 percent for Giuliani and 26 percent for McCain. Still, with Hollywood-style charisma, a résumé that includes a big win in the bluest of states, and a team of marquee activists and aides, Romney is probably the strongest White House hopeful that most Americans have never heard of. "You want to ask some presidential candidates who aren't well known, 'Why did you decide to do this?'" says Whit Ayres, a GOP strategist. "With Romney, you can see a path to go all the way."
Even before leaving office, Romney raised his profile among conservatives by fighting the Massachusetts Supreme Court's 2003 decision to legalize gay marriage. He helped prod the state legislature into voting to put the issue before voters in a referendum. Romney also began trumpeting his new antiabortion stance, tracing his conversion to a 2004 meeting with Harvard scientists. Romney says one scientist told him cloning human embryos was not a moral issue because they were destroyed within two weeks. "It struck me that we had so cheapened the value of human life," Romney tells U.S. News, "that someone would feel that racks of human embryos being created ... was not a moral issue." Now, Romney is drawing parallels between his own antiabortion conversion and that of Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California signed a liberal abortion rights law. Mark DeMoss, an evangelical publicity executive who organized a meeting between Romney and evangelical leaders, says he was won over by Romney's story about the Harvard scientists: "To hear him tell it, it's almost like Paul's road-to-Damascus experience in the New Testament."
Mission. Romney's success rides largely on convincing social conservatives that White House hopefuls like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, an antiabortion rights leader, can't win the GOP nomination. So he's focusing on culturally conservative, early primary states like South Carolina, Iowa, and Florida, which is attempting to move up its primary. Still, some conservatives can't see past Romney's record, and his conversion tale, complete with an Ivy League scientist as boogeyman, seems almost too well crafted for conservative ears. Romney, once a top officer in the Mormon Church, may also face trouble among evangelicals, some of whom don't consider Mormons to be Christians. Richard Land, who directs the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, is urging Romney to follow the example of then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. "I do not speak for my church on public matters," Kennedy said of his Catholicism in 1960, "and the church does not speak for me." Until Romney makes a similar pronouncement, Land says, "he's in the loser's game of reacting to the spin instead of controlling it."
Romney's advisers, however, are reluctant to introduce him to the country as a Mormon first, preferring the image of an executive with a record of fixing problems. "It's a benefit to come from the world of employment and regular people...." Romney says. "[T]he problem ... today is that politics has become a profession and not a duty." While a latecomer to elected office, Romney's father was George Romney, a former Michigan governor. After graduating from Brigham Young University, Mitt Romney earned a law degree and M.B.A. from Harvard. With his wife, Ann, he stayed in Boston, raised five sons, and amassed a fortune by founding the investment firm Bain Capital; he poured $6.1 million into an unsuccessful 1994 Senate bid against Sen. Edward Kennedy. But competing in next year's primaries could cost 20 times that much. Romney raised $6.5 million in a recent daylong call-a-thon, but the federally required disclosure of fundraising results at the end of March will be a big viability test.
Hired in 1999 to turn around the scandal- and debt-plagued Salt Lake City Olympic committee, Romney put it in the black and oversaw a successful Olympics in 2002. He was elected governor of Massachusetts that same year. With a Democratic-controlled state legislature, he managed to balance the budget without raising taxes. And he made national headlines last year by signing a universal health insurance plan that provides vouchers for low-income families and makes insurance portable for employees. "Personal ownership of private health insurance had been an objective of conservatives for decades," says Robert Moffit, a Heritage Foundation scholar. "This was really big."
It's the ability to devise such big solutions that Romney showcases on the campaign trail, as he describes an America faced with unprecedented challenges. "The next few years are going to be tough," says Kristin Simmons, 31, a medical worker who attended a Romney campaign stop at the Lizard's Thicket restaurant in Columbia, S.C. "He seems strong enough to handle it." What aides call Romney's "happy warrior" demeanor carries him through dozens of similar appearances before small groups of Republican activists across the country. "He just looks like a president," says Republican Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who hosted a meet-and-greet for Romney on Capitol Hill last month. "And he accomplished a lot with Democrats in Kennedy country."
Indeed, even as he cultivates the right wing, Romney is playing up his adventures in bipartisanship. So while he supports President Bush's "surge" plan for Iraq, he's also taking subtle swipes at the president. "If someone tells us the truth about the challenges and tells us what we have to do to overcome them, Americans will raise their hands and say, 'Put me in,'" he tells the Lizard's Thicket crowd. In an interview, Romney says "it's now time for us to ... develop a far more comprehensive strategy to move the entire civilized world to help defeat the jihad." Romney says the strategy calls for major aid to moderate Islamic states. Discussing an issue-terrorism-of utmost importance to the GOPbase, Romney was managing to sound downright practical.
This story appears in the February 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.