Politico’s Ben Smith and radio talk show host and Mitt Romney supporter Hugh Hewitt had a little back-and-forth over the weekend. Ben Smith wrote: “The former governor of Massachusetts may be the punching bag of the conservative media, ridiculed on blogs and talk radio as a Plasticine, untrustworthy flip-flopper and the grandfather of the hated Obamacare. But on the Drudge Report, Matt Drudge’s no frills but enduringly influential Web site, Romney is simply the front-runner (‘Romney Wins N.H. Straw Poll’), the ‘Billion-Dollar Man’ and the president’s most implacable foe (‘Romney: First Thing I Would Undo Is Obamacare’). Smith attributes Romney’s success to campaign chief Matt Rhoades, who’s long been known as a master of placing stories on the Drudge Report.
Hewitt didn’t like the claim that Romney was bombing with conservative talk show hosts. Smith responded: “I’ll take it that he is, wisely, not arguing about how conservative blogs are handling Romney, just the talkers. He is also right that many talkers do not regularly attack the Republican front-runner. Many, though, do — including, by my count, four of the top seven conservative talk radio hosts.” He then cited chapter and verse on the hosts who regularly bash Romney.
The real problem for Romney is not the talk show hosts or the blogs but the large audiences who follow both and conservative activists more broadly. The talk shows and the right-leaning blogs report and comment on the Romney problem: The core conservatives don’t trust him and consider Romneycare to be a disqualifying issue. That, we can presume, was why Romney scurried away from the straw polls that are dominated by just this group. Blaming the talk show hosts is the equivalent of shooting the messenger.
One test of the depth of the problem will come Monday night in the New Hampshire debate. Will the crowd boo when he defends Romneycare? Will they laugh and applaud when Tim Pawlenty uses his new catchphrase, Obamneycare?
It is possible to win the GOP nomination without the adoration of core conservatives, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) showed in 2008. There are some primaries, New Hampshire being one of them, where independents can vote. The prospect of votes from independents who don’t gag at the mention of the individual mandate plus Romney’s high name recognition, near-home state status, and emphasis on economic issues make New Hampshire the most attractive prospect for an early Romney win.
Nevertheless, he’s going to have to stand up to critics in debates and the dozens of town hall meetings and coffee klatches that New Hampshire voters expect candidates to attend. He can spend all the money in the world on radio and TV, but ultimately he must convince enough voters one by one that he’s not the “untrustworthy flip-flopper” and won’t bring Romneycare to the country at large (or keep Obamacare in place). It’s possible, but the task is a tall one.