Things are looking up for Mitt Romney. Not only has the outgoing Massachusetts governor been getting reasonably favorable press from usually hostile places but, courtesy of George Allen’s Macaca moment, his position in the 2008 Republican presidential field suddenly looks more secure — the most viable candidate to the right of front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
Romney appears to sense the opportunity. For social conservatives, he has swung pro-life on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research. To burnish his supply-side credentials, he has pressed the Democratic legislature to lower tax rates and signed into law the nation’s largest sales-tax holiday. And when Sen. John Kerry argued that Iraq wasn’t part of the war on terror, Romney — who traveled to Baghdad in May — countered by saying the 2004 Democratic nominee “shows a complete lack of understanding of the kind of enemy we’re facing.”
Despite daunting early poll results, Romney might have a chance if he can win over small-government conservatives who have unhappily resigned themselves to McCain and religious rightists who aren’t aware of Giuliani’s pro-choice stance. That means the Mormon from Massachusetts will need to appeal to evangelical voters. Can he?
The people behind Evangelicals for Mitt hope so. They make the case that evangelicals are politically sophisticated enough to support a candidate who shares their values even if he doesn’t share their theology. The website’s mission statement calls for a president who not only “shares our political and moral values and priorities” but “can win in 2008, and can govern effectively thereafter.”
David French, a veteran conservative activist and devout evangelical who co-founded the group, told me that Romney is the only candidate in the running who he believed can meet all those criteria. “He has a proven track record as a social conservative yet was able to get elected in a state as liberal as Massachusetts,” French said. “He is the best candidate for people of faith while being someone who can reach out to the blue states.”
But that blue-state appeal brings its own baggage. To win over Massachusetts independents who love low taxes but aren’t overly fond of religious conservatives, Romney sometimes tacked to the center — or left, depending on your perspective — on social issues. In both his 1994 Senate bid and 2002 gubernatorial campaign, he ran as a pro-choice candidate.
It will be hard for Romney to live down his pro-choice sound bites from those races. Twelve years ago, he insisted that “abortion should be safe and legal.” Before he was elected governor, he pledged to “protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the commonwealth” even though he disapproved of abortion “on a personal basis.”
“Romney had a genuine conversion on the abortion issue,” French acknowledged. “In that he is no different than Ronald Reagan.” He might have added George H.W. Bush, who was embraced by pro-lifers in 1988 despite a pro-choice past.
Pro-Mitt evangelicals maintain that Governor Romney has already proven his pro-life mettle by vetoing two popular bills on right-to-life grounds. The first expanded embryo-destructive research and the second allowed access to emergency contraception without parental consent. (Both vetoes were easily overridden by the 87 percent Democratic legislature.) Romney has stated that human life begins at conception, a stricter stand than his own church’s antiabortion position.
On the debate over the definition of marriage, Romney’s record is more consistent. He opposed the Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge ruling imposing same-sex matrimony on Massachusetts. Romney helped engineer the preliminary approval of a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision. When that compromise fell apart, he endorsed a version that didn’t include civil unions.
Romney enforced a state law that kept out-of-state gay couples from marrying in Massachusetts — preventing, Evangelicals for Mitt claims, “a national constitutional crisis.” And he has lobbied for the passage of a federal marriage amendment. Even on this issue he is not without conservative critics, but Romney’s support for traditional marriage in a liberal state will be a major selling point to Christian-right caucus-goers.
But some evangelicals insist that they aren’t just looking for single-issue candidates. “We need someone who can tie economic progress to strong families and cultural vitality,” French explained. “The war on terror is a values issue. Do we have the moral fiber to beat the jihadists or are we too weak to live in freedom?”
By this logic, the best way to appeal to evangelicals is simply to be the most thoroughly conservative candidate. If so, Romney may be limited by Mormon theology less than New England geography. “People get how a Mormon would be socially conservative,” French laughed, “but not a Republican who could get elected in Massachusetts.”
Yet Romney’s Bay State service didn’t hurt him in at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll earlier this year. His supporters in Memphis made light of his Massachusetts residency, wearing Yankee Governor, Southern Values t-shirts.
French reminded me that it once would have seemed unlikely that evangelicals would vote for “a divorced former actor from Bel-Air.” Maybe a Reaganite platform can work once again for a happily married former businessman from Belmont, Massachusetts.
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