Mitt Romney’s quest for conservative acceptance.
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he will probably face one last obstacle to his right. Ron Paul faded after the earlier primaries, but his campaign has rebounded somewhat at the state conventions and caucuses as the GOP race headed into the homestretch. Paul seems to have accumulated enough delegates to be a real presence at the Republican National Convention. The Paul supporters could embarrass the frontrunner, and Romney desperately wants their votes. But if the 12-term congressman’s youthful activists (many of whom are outspokenly antiwar) become disruptive, that could also rally old-line conservatives in Tampa behind Romney.
THERE IS LITTLE Romney can do at this point about the facts in his record or biography that bother some conservatives. But many of his biggest problems are not of his making. For a critical mass of conservatives, having to vote for McCain in 2008 was a painful experience. The situation was made even worse when the supposedly electable candidate for whom they were settling didn’t come particularly close to winning. Many of those conservatives promised themselves, “Never again.”
Fast forward to 2010 when conservatives enjoyed great success in the Republican primaries. In Senate races alone, Tea Partiers beat establishment candidates in primaries in Kentucky, Utah, Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist were chased out of the party entirely. To be sure, some of those candidates lost their elections just like McCain did in 2008; Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski snuck back in as a write-in candidate after losing her primary. But conservatives didn’t have to settle anymore.
Conservatives became a discriminating lot. It wasn’t just Romney getting hit for being a Massachusetts moderate. Gingrich was facing questions about the policies he supported after leaving the speakership, with some conservatives asking if he should instead remain on the couch with Nancy Pelosi. Santorum faced scrutiny over his votes for the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind, drawing scorn when he said he was just being a team player. In years past, either man’s conservative credentials might have been accepted uncritically.
The right isn’t heading into this year’s elections with as many exhilarating primary wins as two years ago (the presidential contest certainly included). Some Republicans would say that is for the better, since inexperienced Tea Party candidates lost several winnable races in the last election. But many conservatives want to love their nominee as much as they loved Reagan, a level of enthusiasm that might come in handy when running against a president who inspires nearly cult-like devotion from his followers. And that is the enthusiasm gap with which Romney must work.
Romney may have one trump card that McCain didn’t, however: Obama isn’t as adored as he was four years ago. As much as the president’s men want to make this a contest between the cool candidate and the square, there is now a larger slice of the electorate seeking non-hipster normalcy. So forget Bonnie Raitt. What Romney really needs is for voters to think of him and agree with Bruce Springsteen (maybe Chris Christie can teach him the words): “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright/Oh and that’s alright with me.”