When former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ended months of speculation by announcing his candidacy for president, he brought star power to a field of lesser-known Republicans striving to establish a national base. Romney’s political experience and name recognition could prove formidable in the 2012 election.
Last month’s Republican presidential debate saw admirable policy analysis by former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain and blunt talk by Texas Representative Ron Paul — and little else of great interest. The national media concluded that the GOP would be in dire trouble in ’12 unless a candidate of national repute joined the fold.
While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently announced his candidacy, certainly has a national reputation, his campaign is playing defense on questions about his lack of support for GOP spending cuts and about his personal life. Gingrich has had multiple divorces and personal affairs.
Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska turned reality TV host, has tantalized the media with her potential candidacy, but she has yet to make a final determination. While Palin arguably may have a more idyllic family life than Gingrich, questions remain about whether she has the intellectual heft to become a viable presidential candidate.
This leads to Romney, perhaps the GOP’s best chance to defeat the fund-raising powerhouse and campaign juggernaut that Barack Obama proved to be in 2008. Romney’s favorable attributes include his ability to speak intelligently about economic issues, something that most of his primary opponents (save Herman Cain) will be unable to match.
A second favorable is that Romney, if he can survive questions about how truly socially conservative he is (formerly pro-choice), would be palatable in the general election to independent voters who disapprove of the hard-right social stances of the Tea Party-led GOP, but who similarly disapprove of the manner in which Obama has led with respect to economic and foreign affairs.
Romney, at this juncture, has two liabilities that must be overcome to win the GOP primary. The first is his own version of universal health care he put in place in Massachusetts. Democrats now swear it was a partial template for the Affordable Care Act, known in Republican circles as Obamacare.
In recent weeks, Romney has deftly dodged these claims by suggesting that the individual states — not the federal government — reserve the right to decide this issue.
Romney has also argued that having been a Republican governor of a strongly liberal Democrat state, his health-care law was a better alternative than allowing the status quo to remain, when costs were set to destroy Massachusetts’ economy.
A second perceived liability is Romney’s Mormon faith. Romney’s supporters certainly will argue that a candidate’s faith is not as important as it was 50 years ago, when John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to be elected president. To an extent, even Obama’s election three years ago suggests that candidates with strong messages can overcome liabilities based upon religion or race.
But the fact still remains that any GOP contender must score well in the Deep South, which remains largely a bastion of Southern Baptists and religious evangelicals, some of whom who still view the Mormon faith as a cult rather than a legitimate sect of Christianity.
That mindset will prove difficult to overcome unless Romney is somehow able to explain the theological aspects of his faith in a manner that does not sound like talking points handed down from his political handlers. Or, Romney must explain in careful detail how his personal values are aligned with those issues that draw evangelicals to the polls, including abortion and same-sex marriage.
If successful in this regard without sounding like the second coming of Patrick Buchanan, then the 2012 general election that some observers believe will end in an a rout by Obama could prove closer than expected.