The EFM Feature

Wall Street Journal
John Fund
September 25, 2006

WASHINGTON–Right now John McCain is the front-runner for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. But everyone expects that a single major competitor will emerge to challenge him from the right. The question hung in the air of this past weekend’s Family Research Council summit in Washington: Who will that candidate be for the GOP’s powerful social conservative base?

FRC officials says they invited Mr. McCain to speak, but he declined. But another potential candidate benefited greatly from showing up. Surprisingly, it was Massachusetts’ Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon with a Harvard M.B.A who governs the nation’s most liberal state. The 1,800 delegates applauded him frequently during his Friday speech and gave him a standing ovation afterward. Mr. Romney detailed his efforts to block court-imposed same-sex marriage in the Bay State and noted that the liberal Legislature has failed to place a citizen-initiated referendum on the ballot. He excoriated liberals for supporting democracy only when they think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion that favors their views. He certainly picked up fans at the summit. “I believe Mitt Romney may be the only hope social conservatives have in 2008,” says Maggie Gallagher, author of a book defending traditional marriage.

The tall barrier many see as blocking his acceptance by evangelical voters–the fact that many Americans view Mormonism with suspicion or worse–may prove to be a mirage. “Everyone I talked to said they didn’t have a problem with it,” one attendee told me. “If enough people say that to each other, Romney creates a virtuous circle in which evangelical activists decide he’s acceptable.” Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, notes that something similar has happened in recent years as devout Catholic and evangelical Protestants have increasingly focused on areas of agreement. “Romney won’t be the ideal choice for evangelicals, but against a McCain in the primary or a Hillary Clinton in the general election there’s no doubt where most would go,” he says.

Recently, the person most likely to be viewed as the conservative alternative to John McCain would have been Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist or Sen. George Allen of Virginia. But Mr. Frist has lost support as he has failed to herd the unruly cats of the Senate and been viewed as a Washington insider. As for Mr. Allen, he was welcomed by delegates, who sympathized with the hazing he’s gotten over his use of the term “macaca” to describe an Indian-American working for his opponent. Almost no one seemed to care about the recent discovery of his Jewish ancestry. But Mr. Allen has clearly suffered from his accident-prone Senate re-election campaign. One noted that he has gone from twice being named the front-runner for the 2008 nomination in National Journal’s semi-annual poll of 100 GOP “insiders” to being a beleaguered incumbent in his home state. Now he’s even facing fire from the right. “I’m disappointed Sen. Allen has chosen to attack [Democratic opponent] Jim Webb for once opposing inappropriate roles for women in the military,” says Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness. “He’s pandering and panicking.”

Other social conservatives addressed the FRC summit and received warm greetings. They included Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and former speaker Newt Gingrich. But for now all are viewed as either too little known or carrying too much baggage to win the nomination. That said, Mr. Gingrich was given a rock star’s welcome at the summit’s closing banquet. “He is on Fox News so much that conservatives have forgotten his fall from power and now think of him as a statesman,” says Fred Johnson, a prominent social conservative from Iowa. “When he said the U.S. was now in World War III against terrorism, every talk show ran with it.”

Mr. Romney’s can’t match Mr. Gingrich’s rhetorical flair or Mr. Huckabee’s down-home homilies. But he impressed three separate and distinct audiences in Washington last week in a 24-hour speaking blitz. On Thursday about one out of eight House Republicans came to hear him address a weekly luncheon hosted by Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia. Mr. Kingston told the Boston Globe that Mr. Romney made a very positive impression and was clearly positioning himself for the role opposite Mr. McCain that Mr. Allen once occupied.

Immediately afterward, Mr. Romney went across town to address a group of K Street lobbyists and economic conservatives. “He was impressive in explaining how he governed as a conservative in Ted Kennedy’s home state,” said columnist Robert Novak. The next morning, Mr. Romney appeared before the Family Research Council’s summit. “He won over a lot of people when he recalled how as a businessman he had rescued the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City,” says Chris Butler of Americans For Tax Reform.

That experience helped solidify Mr. Romney’s reputation as a can-do manager who knows how to delegate. “He is the only elected official I’ve met with who gave me a detailed power-point briefing on my area of expertise,” says Bob Moffit, a health-care expert at the Heritage Foundation who worked with Mr. Romney to craft a law mandating that everyone in Massachusetts buy health insurance.

That’s not to say Mr. Romney doesn’t have critics back home. Even Romney allies acknowledge that should Democrat Deval Patrick win this fall’s gubernatorial race to succeed the retiring Mr. Romney, his health-care plan could become a bureaucratic nightmare. Larry Cirignano, the head of the Boston-based group Catholic Citizenship, faults Mr. Romney for not allowing local officials to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He also criticizes the governor for reversing a decision to replace a state advisory commission on gay and lesbian youth with one representing all youth. Only a few hours after the announcement, Mr. Romney changed his mind. Commission chairman Kathleen Myers said she is convinced he reversed course after being “inundated” with protest calls. “It wasn’t a profile in courage from a conservative’s point of view,” notes Mr. Cirignano.

But sniping from his home state isn’t the greatest challenge facing Mr. Romney. While he is well known in the early primary state of New Hampshire, he still has scant organization in Iowa, which will vote before New Hampshire. Reporters will continue to dog him over his position on abortion. Mr. Romney says he is now “very firmly pro-life” after having frequently expressed pro-choice views. Last year, Mike Murphy, a strategist for his 2002 governor’s race, raised further questions when he told National Review that, all along, Mr. Romney has been “a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly.” Mr. Romney said Mr. Murphy was speaking only for himself.

But Mr. Romney also has many advantages. He is perhaps the only candidate who can plausibly claim a base in several states. He has a contributor base in Massachusetts; a large reservoir of political goodwill in Michigan, where he was born and his father served as governor in the 1960s; and the loyalty of many Mormons in Utah and neighboring states. He has a built-in corps of volunteers and contributors in any state where Mormons, the fastest-growing religion in America, have a real presence.

And then there is the charisma and poise that Mr. Romney seems to exude naturally. “Many people say he certainly looks like a president–sort of a cross between Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy,” says Genevieve Wood, who founded the conservative Center for a Just Society. Anyone who draws comparisons to those political genes merits further watching.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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