The Take

For Romney, a different campaign but old obstacles

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney derided President Barack Obama's health care law _ modeled in some ways after one the ex-governor signed in Massachusetts _ as a misguided and egregious effort to seize more power for Washington. (March 7)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 1:09 PM

Mitt Romney wasn't in Iowa on Monday, which tells you much about his second campaign for the presidency. It will not be a rerun of the first.

The former Massachusetts governor skipped the first mini-forum of the 2012 Republican nomination battle. As several of his likely rivals shared the stage at a church in Des Moines, appealing to Christian conservatives, Romney chose to make his splash on the front page of the Boston Herald with a guest column ripping President Obama on the economy, just as the president was arriving for a visit.

Four years ago, Romney was in a great hurry to prove his bona fides as a candidate against better-known Republicans such as John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. This time he has been content to wait and to focus on the president rather than fellow Republicans. His strategy has helped dictate the pace of the slow-starting campaign, which he hopes will be to his advantage. The change reflects Romney's status in the top tier of the Republican field as well as lessons learned from his flawed campaign of 2008.

At every turn four years ago, Romney wanted to be first and earliest. He was overeager. He tried to match McCain organizationally, starting in 2006. He made a fundraising splash in January 2007 as a way to signal that he could go the distance financially, even if he was in single digits in the polls.

He launched television commercials earlier than any of his rivals, and moved the polls in his direction. He won the Iowa straw poll in August 2007 after a heavy investment of time in energy. He never quite recovered from that victory.

His Iowa commitment, from which he could not extract himself, turned out to be a miscalculation of sizable and costly proportions. To his dismay, he eventually found himself in a nasty one-on-one battle against a rising Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor's support among social and religious conservatives, who were dominant in Iowa, proved too much for Romney's otherwise well-organized campaign to overcome. On the night of the caucuses, a victorious Huckabee handed Romney off to McCain for the next battle in New Hampshire. "Now it's your turn to kick his butt," Huckabee told McCain, according to advisers to both.

Romney's time and money spent in Iowa proved costly in New Hampshire. Had he defeated McCain there, the Arizona senator probably would have been forced to end his campaign. By losing the two early states, Romney essentially doomed his own chances. All the evidence suggests he will not make that mistake this time around.

Romney's Iowa commitment in 2012 is still a work in progress. His attention to New Hampshire is there for all to see. It was there Saturday that he delivered one of his few public speeches of the year. He hasn't been in Iowa since fall.

Romney knows he must win New Hampshire if he hopes to become the nominee, and he will sacrifice Iowa, if necessary, to ensure that he does. An Iowa mini-forum with Christian conservatives held before anyone has declared a candidacy doesn't fit among his priorities at this stage of the campaign.

He wants to demonstrate to his party's activists that he has the knowledge and experience to take on an incumbent president on both economic and foreign policy. And in so doing, he hopes to show Republicans that he would be their strongest candidate in a general election.

Romney still faces two problems left over from his last campaign. The first is health care. Can he ever persuade Republican primary and caucus voters that what he did in Massachusetts was truly different from what Obama did nationally?

Romney used his speech in New Hampshire to try to explain those differences: that Massachusetts was a state-specific solution and not, as he put it, a one-size-fits-all approach for the nation. But he will have more to explain, particularly the individual mandate that both the Massachusetts law and Obama's plan include.

It's possible that the Massachusetts health-care plan will be to Romney what Hillary Clinton's vote for the resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq was to her candidacy four years ago: a seminal action that permanently alienates a part of the party's base.

As with Clinton four years ago, it is long past time for Romney to apologize for what he did in Massachusetts or say it was a big mistake that he now regrets. He can only explain why he did what he did and, as Clinton did in ratcheting up her opposition to Bush's policies, become one of the loudest advocates for repeal of Obama's health-care law.

His other big challenge will be establishing his authenticity. If early soundings are any indication, he carries baggage from his first campaign on this question. Many Republicans think he fits the profile of a nominee who could help put the U.S. economy on better footing. But he hasn't fully earned their trust.

So although Romney may follow a different strategy this time, the obstacles in his path will be familiar.

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