The Times (London)
October 15, 2006
In an essential rite of passage for American politicians, Mitt Romney was ushered into the presence of Baroness Thatcher at a Washington think tank last month. If not quite an official anointing, the handshake and chat with so venerable a figure was an unmistakable sign to conservatives that he was “one of us.”
The improbably handsome right-wing governor of left-wing Massachusetts is generating enormous buzz as the conservative with the best chance of beating the independent-minded Senator John McCain for the 2008 Republican nomination. When his term in office expires in January, Romney is expected to throw himself helter-skelter into the presidential race.
Romney is already crisscrossing the country as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association, bearing large cheques and a ready smile for candidates in the November mid-term elections. His meeting with Thatcher was swiftly incorporated into his patter on the stump.
“Can you imagine? It was such an extraordinary honour to be able to sit down with her person-to-person,” he said in his first interview with a British newspaper. “We talked about the condition of the world and I said, ‘I’m optimistic that we’ll overcome these problems,’ and she paused and said, ‘We always have’.”
Romney looks like a taller version of Martin Sheen in The West Wing, has been married to his high school sweetheart for 37 years and has five photogenic children. At 59 he is no youngster but is frequently ribbed about his film star appearance. “My wife and I know better. She’s the one with the looks in the family,” he joked.
He would be straight out of central casting were it not for one startling drawback: Romney is a Mormon, a religion some evangelical Christians regard with disdain. In a potential double whammy, he also speaks French (a source of ridicule for the 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry), having been a Mormon missionary as a young man in France.
Romney, who already has a fan club called Evangelicals for Mitt, thinks the religious issue will fizzle. “People used to wonder whether a divorced actor could be elected,” he said, referring to Ronald Reagan, “or whether a Mormon could win Massachusetts, a state that is 55% Catholic.
“There was probably a time when people cared which church you went to, but that’s past. People today look to see a person’s faith in the way they live in their home with their family.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlawed polygamy long ago. But as one wag has noted, in a 2008 Republican field consisting of McCain, Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, the only man who has had one wife would be the Mormon.
On the campaign trail last week he stopped by at a fundraiser in Philadelphia for Rick Santorum, one of the senators most identified with the Christian “values voters” who kept President George W. Bush in power in 2004.
The night before, Romney had attended a 10th anniversary party for the conservative journal National Review Online where the stars of Washington’s conservative firmament gossiped over cocktails about his rising status as the candidate who could unite the “Republican wing of the Republican party.”
Laura Ingraham, the popular conservative talk show host, recalled how the smooth Romney had rung to sympathise after she announced that her dog Troy had gone missing. “He’s the man,” she said approvingly.
Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida and a favourite with the right, said last week Romney would be a “formidable” candidate.
As governor, Romney has already proved his appeal to swing voters. One party-goer described him as an American Tony Blair. “He’s extremely eloquent with strong convictions. He’s a visionary who is attempting to create a health system which could be a model for the whole country.”
Romney is pioneering a market-based system for universal healthcare in his home state that he believes easily trumps Hillary Clinton’s botched proposal when she was first lady. “The first difference between hers and mine is that mine got voted in,” he said tartly.
On abortion, he has switched to being pro-life (some question his sincerity) and opposes gay marriage, which the courts have permitted in Massachusetts. He is also tough on immigration and hawkish on national security.
“We’re under attack by jihadists,” Romney said. “They’re not simply a band of lunatics in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a worldwide effort by a small slice of Islam to subjugate all the nations of Islam to a caliphate.”
Romney defended Bush’s new laws regarding the treatment of terrorist suspects last month, but criticised him for allowing the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to visit America.
He has spent time recently with Paul Bremer, the former head of the provisional coalition authority, and other Iraq experts. Mistakes were made, he freely admitted, but the Iraqi government had to be given more time to establish security.
“When that is achieved”–he did not say by 2008, but he must be hoping–“there will be a relatively rapid withdrawal.”
Romney will have to take more risks to lift his candidacy out of the ordinary, observers believe. Just as the Democrats are searching for a credible alternative to Clinton, so the Republicans want a candidate who can square up to the heavyweight McCain–an “American hero”, in Romney’s words, who is certainly “one of the leading contenders”.
We will know Romney is outpacing him if the Tories invite him to address next year’s party conference–McCain attended this year’s gathering in Bournemouth. “I’d love to speak to my conservative colleagues in the mother country,” Romney laughed. Of course, he may have to keep the Thatcher yarns to a minimum.
The Times (London)