If Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign doesn’t win the support of the Republican Party’s right wing, it won’t be for lack of trying. On Friday, a week after an appearance at the National Review Institute’s Conservative Summit, Romney was once again courting conservatives, this time at the Heritage Foundation’s Conservative Member’s Retreat in Baltimore, where he spoke before members of the Republican Study Committee.
At the NRI Summit, Romney got mostly lukewarm reviews after an overlong and somewhat dull speech. Rich Lowry called it “rambling and unfocused” and harshly criticized Romney for not addressing the Iraq War, calling that “bizarre and just wrong and almost offensive in my view.” One Summit-goer I talked to referred to Romney as “our Kerry.”
Romney did much better on Friday with a shorter and crisper version of his stump speech; he jettisoned a few anecdotes and most of his discussion of health care policy (he saved that for the press conference afterwards, where he took pains to distance himself from Democrats’ implementation of the Massachusetts health care plan he supported). And he did talk about Iraq, expressing support and cautious hope for the troop surge while emphasizing the need for “a Plan B.” He later clarified that he meant that Plan B would be a soft partition of Iraq, echoing foreign policy analysts like Michael O’Hanlon.
On Iran, Romney has an impressively detailed spiel consisting of a five-point plan to confront the Islamic Republic: tougher sanctions, diplomatic isolation, engagement with moderate Muslim states who fear the mullahs, an effort to convince the Iranian people that going nuclear has downsides that include responsibility for the actions of terrorists who use fissile material of Iranian origin, and putting Iran in the context of a global anti-jihadi effort that involves a larger military and a foreign aid effort that Romney calls a “partnership for prosperity.” On Friday he made news on this issue with an attack on Hillary Clinton; “We don’t need a listening tour about Iran,” he said.
Establishing foreign policy bona fides is a necessary step toward winning the nomination, but it isn’t sufficient, particularly against Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, two of the most eloquent hawks in politics. To be competitive, Romney needs to establish himself as the best alternative for those who are unhappy with the frontrunners’ heterodoxy.
His record is somewhat of an obstacle. In Massachusetts, Romney governed mostly as a Northeastern liberal Republican, albeit with a better-than-average fiscal record. At every appearance, Romney makes an effort to explain his shifts to the right, particularly his move from the pro-choice camp to the pro-life camp. Romney says his epiphany on the issue came during the debate over research on embryos. It’s an odd path to take toward the conversion, particularly given Romney’s religious background; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a nuanced position on when life begins, and all five Mormon U.S. Senators have supported embryonic stem cell research while opposing abortion. Romney made an oblique reference to LDS theology in Friday’s press conference when he said he doesn’t know when the soul and body are joined, but an embryo is human life either way. (I leave consideration of the philosophical implications of protecting soulless life as an exercise for the reader.) That brings us, of course, to the big question mark of Romney’s campaign: Whether religious conservatives will vote for a Mormon candidate.
It’s a tough question, but one thing Romney has going for him is that he’s made a much more concerted effort to woo conservatives than the frontrunners. Giuliani and McCain have declined invitations to speak before conservatives in favor of spending more time in early primary states. RSC Chairman Jeb Hensarling said that during the Q&A with members after the Friday speech (which was closed to the press), Romney’s answers to questions about his ideological evolution seemed to strike many in the room as “sincere and heartfelt.” If he can learn to be more consistent on the stump, Romney’s efforts to shore up the right may well pay off.