Mr. Romney Jumps In

Friday, February 16, 2007

FORMER Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney chose his home state of Michigan to formally launch his presidential bid, which may say a lot about the hurdles he faces in his effort to win the Republican nomination. Having presided over one of the most liberal states in the nation, having made statements on issues such as abortion and gay rights that appealed to the residents of that state, Mr. Romney, 59, now needs to convince the social conservatives who have a big say in picking the party's nominee that he is not a Massachusetts Republican after all. Mr. Romney, a Harvard MBA and management consultant, has methodically gone about the task of wooing social conservatives, but his record could make that a tough sell.

He has disavowed previous positions backing a federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and calling for an end to the ban on gays in the military; now he emphasizes his opposition to the ruling on same-sex marriage by Massachusetts's highest court. Once he touted his support for abortion rights and backed the use of leftover embryos for stem cell research; now he endorses overturning Roe v. Wade, a position he says he came to during the stem cell debate. Our views are much more in line with the old Romney than the new version; Republican primary voters will have to judge for themselves which is authentic and whether political opportunism, rather than a moral awakening, as he says, played a role in Mr. Romney's transformation.

Mr. Romney enters the race with many strengths. In his announcement, he sounded a reformer-outsider message reminiscent of both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), saying that "the halls of government are clogged with petty politics and stuffed with peddlers of influence." But he also argued that the presidency is not a job for "someone who has never even managed a corner store, let alone the largest enterprise in the world." Mr. Romney's managerial and executive experience, in private life and government, separate him from most of his rivals. He had a successful stint as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, overcoming a bribery scandal and turning a failing financial enterprise into a money-making operation.

As governor of Massachusetts, he worked with the Democratic legislature -- and the state's senior U.S. senator, liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy -- to craft a universal health insurance plan by combining a mandate for individuals to purchase coverage, subsidies for those unable to afford it and a "fee" -- not a tax, Mr. Romney argued -- for employers who failed to offer coverage. How the Romney plan will work out remains uncertain: The first bids came in at double the expected monthly premium cost.

One challenge that Mr. Romney faces is something that we hope dissipates as an issue over time: winning over voters uneasy about his Mormon faith. In a Gallup poll this week, a disturbing 24 percent said they would not vote for a "generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Mormon." Mr. Romney's religion could be a particular sticking point with evangelical Christians who wield significant clout in GOP primaries. As with another Massachusetts politician who ran for the presidency more than four decades ago and persuaded voters not to hold his Catholicism against him, Mr. Romney should be judged on a basis other than his faith.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company