Move toward the center, he infuriates the base; refuse to, he will alienate independent voters. And however he maneuvers, will voters be left with a clear picture of why he is running? Nothing is more central to the GOP self-identity than that this is the party that stands for big ideas.
As Romney has tried to win over his purist skeptics in the GOP’s activist base, he has shifted to the right on a number of issues. Most notable has been his hard-line stance on illegal immigration, where he outflanked Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Among the other issues that could put him at odds with independents: his increasingly explicit support for the House Republican plan to restructure Medicare; his declaration that the housing market should be allowed to “hit the bottom,” rather than backing government intervention to slow the rate of foreclosures; his criticism of President Obama’s possible move to end the combat mission in Afghanistan more than a year ahead of schedule.
“Romney’s twin challenges are to unify the Republican base, where significant elements remain unconvinced of the strength of his conservative philosophy, while at the same time not genuflecting so much that he can’t appeal to the independent vote that will ultimately decide the election,” said Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff in Ronald Reagan’s White House.
In the view of some in his party, Romney has an additional — and more serious — problem heading into the general election: He has thus far failed to brand his candidacy with an expansive vision.
“The fundamental question is whether Romney’s leadership can shape the Republican Party or will the far, far right define Romney?” Duberstein said.
A 59-point economic plan, some senior Republicans point out, is not the same thing as a big idea. Nor is Romney’s constant recitation of the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.”
Argument could lose edge
Going into the fall, Romney will no longer have the advantage of superior resources and organization. And if the economy continues to improve, his most potent argument — that Obama is simply not up to the job of fixing it — will lose its edge.
“What worked against an underfunded Mr. Gingrich won’t work against the well-funded Barack Obama,” Karl Rove, former president George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, warned in a column in the Wall Street Journal after Romney’s Florida win. “He should become bolder in his prescriptions, presenting a confident agenda for economic growth and renewed prosperity through reforms of taxes, regulatory and energy policies.”