Does Romney still need to court conservatives?
Proving he is ‘severely conservative’

Article Highlights

  • Losing the #Santorum burden this early is a big plus for #Romney

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  • Romney has made an extraordinary pivot to the extraordinary right

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  • Romney talking more about high rate of unemployment among women and using his wife as a face for his campaign

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Can Mitt Romney, now that he has shaken his most persistent conservative rival, Rick Santorum, shake the Etch A Sketch and redefine himself for the broader electorate he must win over in the fall? Losing the Santorum burden this early is a big plus for Romney — he said, after the Santorum announcement, that it was a good day for him. But the task of moving from the extremely — maybe we should call them "severely" — conservative positions he has taken to win over the Republican primary electorate will not be easy. Romney has made an extraordinary pivot to the extraordinary right, one that has had Russell Pearce, the author of the Arizona immigration law so extreme that voters bounced him from office, say that Romney's position on immigration is identical to his own.

"These activists will threaten to disrupt the convention, and they will ratchet up pressure on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, blogs and other outlets to keep [Romney] from straying back to the middle." -- Norman Ornstein

He has done so to try over and over to reassure the right wing that now dominates the G.O.P. that he is one of them, that he can be trusted, that contrary to the stereotype of Romney as the moderate governor of Massachusetts, he was in fact "severely conservative" even back then. Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, a staunch conservative and supporter of Santorum, made clear after the withdrawal that he and other social conservatives would keep up the pressure on Romney, to make sure their misgivings about him were allayed, or at least not reinforced. Regardless of whether Newt Gingrich stays in the race up to the convention to keep up conservative pressure, conservative activists and organizations will be all over every statement Romney makes, every wink and nod to reassure moderates that he doesn't really mean what he is saying to conservatives. These activists will threaten to disrupt the convention, and they will ratchet up pressure on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, blogs and other outlets to keep him from straying back to the middle.

They will not be alone. The Obama campaign now has a clear target and will join with conservatives both to point out repeatedly some of the promises Romney has made and the statements he has uttered, and to pounce on any more evidence of Romney's lack of ideological anchors.

To be sure, Romney is not totally in a box. He has a savvy and seasoned team of campaign professionals who know how to manage a message (even if his spokesman will never live down the Etch A Sketch metaphor). A candidate can alter his message without taking back anything he has said before; thus, Romney is already changing his tune on immigration from talking about self-deportation and the wonderful Arizona law to decrying Obama's failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. He is talking not about contraception but about the high rate of unemployment among women — and using his wife Ann even more as a face for his campaign. Steps like those may help to change the conversation and allay the concerns of key blocs of swing voters. At least they might for a candidate who is naturally adept at empathy and easily able to parse sentences and rely on nuances. Sadly, for Mitt Romney, those are not his skills.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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