Romney’s toughest sale: His own conservatism

at 08:02 AM ET, 02/14/2012

Mitt Romney spent much of his speech Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference trying to convince the activists assembled that he’s truly one of them.

He’s fighting a losing battle right now.

Romney’s speech was notable for its frequent use of the word “conservative,” and at one point, he said that he had been a “severely conservative” governor of Massachusetts.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney chats with a supporter at a caucus, Saturday in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The problem with that is, regardless of what kind of governor he was, Republicans don’t even think he’s severely conservative person right now.

A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed that, much more than just a few months ago, Republicans and Republican-leaning voters are questioning the GOP frontrunner’s conservatism.

While in November, just 33 percent said Romney was not a “strong conservative,” that number has since risen to 50 percent. Meanwhile, the number who said he is a strong conservative dropped from 53 percent to 42 percent.

Let us re-state this another way: Romney is trying to win a Republican primary in which half of voters don’t think he’s really all that conservative.

In many ways, this isn’t terribly surprising. After all, the last poll was conducted in November, long before the real attacks of the 2012 race began.

But it’s also clear that this is much more of a vulnerability in this race now that Rick Santorum is Romney’s chief rival. Indeed, Santorum’s ascent seems to have crystallized whatever long-running skepticism there was about Romney, because he’s a much clearer contrast than his forebearers.

While Newt Gingrich has called Romney a “Massachusetts moderate” for weeks now, the message came from an imperfect messenger. While Gingrich was trying to hit Romney for his health care bill and a more moderate record, Gingrich himself had to answer for his support for cap and trade legislation and even an individual health insurance mandate.

While no conservative is perfect, Santorum has a more consistent conservative record, which may serve to highlight the holes in Romney’s.

In fact, this is arguably the first time that Romney has actually had such a conservative opponent running neck-and-neck with him.

When Romney ran in 2008, he actually became the de facto conservative alternative for a time, mostly because Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) moderate record was much more well-established than his own.

None of the other conservatives in that race panned out, and so Romney filled the void and ran to McCain’s right. And with his own past sins, it’s not like McCain was going to litigate their relative ideological purity.

But as it turns out, Romney might actually face more skepticism about his conservatism than McCain did.

A Pew poll conducted about this time in the 2008 showed 44 percent of Republicans said McCain was not a “true conservative,” while 46 percent said he was.

The question was asked a little bit differently for Romney — “strong conservative” is probably a higher bar to clear than “true conservative” — but the poll suggests Romney faces a similar amount of skepticism about his conservatism as McCain did.

McCain won, of course. But given his more conservative competition, Romney’s path may be a little more difficult.

Third poll shows Santorum-Romney tie: After two polls Monday showed the two frontrunners knotted in a virtual tie, another poll today confirms it.

The just-released CBS News/New York Times poll showed 30 percent favoring Santorum and 27 percent favoring Romney, with the other two candidates in the low double-digits.

Similarly to the Pew poll, Santorum has rallied the support of conservatives, the tea party, and evangelicals, taking about 40 percent of the vote in each group — a heretofore unprecedented amount of unity for those demographics.

Romney explains himself on auto bankruptcy: With the campaign in Michigan ramping up, Romney took to the pages of the Detroit News today to explain his position on the auto bailout.

Romney wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2008 that the newspaper headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” and some have suggested his position on the issue may hurt him in Michigan.

In a new op-ed, Romney clarifies his position but stands by his contention that a “managed bankruptcy” would have been the right call.

“Managed bankruptcy may sound like a death knell,” he said. “But in fact, it is a way for a troubled company to restructure itself rapidly, entering and leaving the courtroom sometimes in weeks or months instead of years, and then returning to profitable operation.”

Fixbits:

George W. Bush takes ownership of the auto bailout.

Republicans may be caving on the payroll tax cut.

A new poll in Massachusetts shows Sen. Scott Brown (R) and Elizabeth Warren (D) in a virtual tie. Warren is at 46 percent, while Brown is at 43 percent.

A “personhood” law failed on the ballot in Mississippi last year, but it passed in the GOP-led Virginia state House on Monday. The bill was pushed by state Del. Bob Marshall (R), who is running for U.S. Senate.

Another Democrat passes on running for retiring Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb.) seat: state Sen. Steve Lathrop . University of Nebraska Regent Chuck Hassebrook is so far the only Democratic candidate. He’s announcing his campaign today.

Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) wins a resounding endorsement from the California Democratic Party in her primary with Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.). Hahn’s name will appear on the ballot as the official Democratic candidate. Meanwhile, in the state’s other matchup of Democratic incumbents, Rep. Brad Sherman took more of the convention vote than Rep. Howard Berman but came up short of winning an endorsement.

A Democratic state senator will run in the general election for former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s (D-Ariz.) seat. Giffords’s former chief of staff, Ron Barber, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the special election, but hasn’t said whether he will be a placeholder or will run again in November.

Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) gets help under Kentucky’s new congressional map.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) may have a primary challenger in his new district: retiring Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder.

Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R-Calif.) mortgage goes under the microscope.

Must-reads:

Congress Debt Ceiling Debacle May Repeat Before Presidential Election” — Zach Carter and Ryan Grim, Huffington Post

Most of Romney’s top fundraisers remain anonymous” — Richard Lardner, AP

 
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