When Mitt Romney launches his second presidential campaign Thursday on a rolling New Hampshire hayfield, notably absent will be a number of endorsers, donors and advisers from his 2008 bid who, for personal and professional reasons, have not committed to his 2012 effort.
It seems there are doubts about his viability. (“Many elected officials who endorsed him in 2008 are staying on the sidelines until the contours of the 2012 race become more clear — feeding the notion that Romney is a weak front-runner.”) And there is discomfort with his conservative bona fides. A New Hampshire pol is quoted as saying: “I’m looking to identify the most conservative candidate who can win. This is a different election than in 2008.”
This is certainly not a helpful storyline for Romney. If these sentiments are widespread, other donors could hold out, or seek out Tim Pawlenty or a Republican not in the race yet.
But, I’d argue that this isn’t such a huge deal, and it doesn’t compare to other challenges.The issue for Romney is not whether he has more or less donors than he did in 2008, but whether he has more than everyone else this time. He does. (And this assumes that money is the key to the GOP nomination, an assumption disproven when Sen. John McCain beat Romney in 2008.)
Moreover, I think with a very few exceptions, endorsements mean almost nothing in today’s political environment. A stamp of approval from Sarah Palin, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and maybe a couple other pols still matters, but beyond that primary voters don’t much care what other pols have to say about the contenders.
The problem for Romney, strictly speaking, isn’t the defections; rather, it’s the underlying handicap, RomneyCare, that is responsible for a number of the defections. He has yet to, and perhaps cannot, get around that issue. His best approach, I would suggest, is threefold. First, be honest that most conservatives disagree with his plan and that he understands (as McCain understood on the issue of immigration) that the individual mandate is not politically feasible as far as Republicans and many independents go. Second, tell voters that despite this deviation, he has been a limited-government, pro-individual-freedom politician. And third, put health care in the context of the larger issue of American competitiveness. (The tanking economy arguably helps Romney change the subject.) In essence, he needs to convince voters he’s learned a lesson about the individual mandate and won’t repeat the error.
None of that may work, but the Romney camp shouldn’t much worry that a South Carolina “backer” or his 2008 New Hampshire campaign manager aren’t with him this time. He instead should focus on making sure the Tea Partyers and the rest of the GOP grass roots are.