It’s a time-tested move for Republican presidential candidates: Run to the right during the primaries to secure the party’s nomination, then move toward the center to win the White House in November.
The political dance, first choreographed in 1968 by Richard Nixon, could be a delicate one for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Perhaps no Republican nominee in recent times has run as hard – or as far – to the right as Romney. Coming from liberal Massachusetts, the former governor had to distance himself from a record that included support for abortion rights, gay rights, and a state health care law that mandates people buy insurance, the essence of the national law that conservative Republicans loathe. He leaned hard right to outflank and dispatch a field of primary challengers that aggressively attacked his conservative credentials and to convince wary conservative voters that he’s truly one of them.
Now as he heads to the Republican National Convention to launch his fall campaign, Romney faces the challenge of battling President Barack Obama for the small sliver of independent moderates who could decide the election’s outcome – without alienating a conservative base that’s still suspicious of his political core.
The recent brouhaha over abortion and rape underscored the test of appealing to both audiences. Romney condemned Republican Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comment that women cannot get pregnant in cases of “legitimate” rape, reasserted his support for abortion rights in cases of rape, but also stressed his opposition to abortion in most cases.
“Romney has to attract a majority of independent voters in the middle in order to win,” said Mark McKinnon, who advised George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. “He can’t win simply by motivating GOP base voters.”
Romney’s task is “keep the base, but you’ve also got to get the Washington, D.C., suburbs in Virginia, the (Florida) I-4 Corridor, and the Philadelphia suburbs,” places where independent and undecided swing voters dwell, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.
“There’s no clear-cut path for him that’s not without drawbacks,” Madonna said.
Romney’s path to the nomination veered sharply to the right during primary season. Even before picking Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate, Romney embraced the House Budget Committee chairman’s budget plan, which revamps Medicare by giving retirees payments to buy health insurance coverage; talked tough on illegal immigration and opposed the DREAM Act, which would allow young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children to stay here if they’re enrolled in college or serve in the military; and staunchly opposed legalized abortion and federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
The stances helped Romney outflank his opponents, but they may not appeal to independents and undecided swing voters who tend to be less “ideological and more moderate,” according to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
Making things potentially even more complicated for Romney this fall is that for the first time in four election cycles independent voters have unfavorable opinions of both parties – the Republican Party more so.
A June/July Pew poll found that 62 percent of independents had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, while 57 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.
Romney campaign officials are confident that he can appeal to independent and undecided voters without turning off the party’s base.
“Gov. Romney has put forth a pro-growth plan that appeals to all voters, across party lines,” said Amanda Henneberg, the campaign’s deputy press secretary. “Voters want to see our country move in the right direction again – a direction of opportunity and prosperity – and Gov. Romney offers a positive vision for all Americans.”
But some conservative Republicans have warned that if Romney moves toward the center, he does so at his own peril.
“He’s in the proverbial damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation,” said Judson Phillips, co-founder of Tea Party Nation, a tea party social Website. “If he does, he opens himself up to being a bigger flip-flopper than John Kerry,” the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.
A Romney move to the middle also could give the Obama camp ample political ammunition, some of it supplied by former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. During the primaries, the former Pennsylvania senator seized upon Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom’s analogy about how different Romney’s general election campaign would be from the primary contests.
“I think everything changes,” Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
“Every Democrat will be borrowing Rick Santorum’s Etch A Sketch and waving it at Romney,” Phillips said. “If Romney goes moderate, it’s a lose-lose scenario.”
With the base of their parties fairly committed, both Romney and Obama are pursuing perhaps the smallest pool of undecided voters in the last three presidential election cycles.
A July McClatchy-Marist poll found that only 6 percent of the nation’s voters are undecided about a presidential candidate. And of the 94 percent of Americans who’ve chosen between Romney and Obama, only 5.5 percent said they may change their minds before Election Day.
“The conservative base (doesn’t) have to be appeased, they’re not going anywhere,” McKinnon said. “Obama is motivation enough for them to vote for Romney.”
Bill Dal Col, who managed millionaire magazine publisher Steve Forbes’ 1996 Republican presidential campaign, disagrees. He believes the Romney-Ryan ticket is currently well-positioned and doesn’t need to make an overt political shift to attract more voters.
“I think they just need to get the message clearly out there that we need a new direction,” said Dal Col, who hired a young Paul Ryan in 1993 as a writer/researcher when he was president of Empower America. “They are, for the most part, center-right, not hard right. They’re not extreme.”
Still, Romney appears to be trying to balance between wooing the small sliver of undecided and independent voters and keeping his base energized.
For example, he’s lowered the volume on his immigration stance since securing the nomination, downplaying his primary season vow to veto the DREAM Act if elected president, and highlighting his support for the military component of the act.
“As president, I will stand for a path to legal status for anyone who is willing to stand up and defend this great nation through military service,” he told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials convention in June. “Those who’ve risked their lives in defense of America have earned their right to make their life in America.”
Earlier this month, he began attacking Obama on welfare, accusing him of gutting key elements of the bipartisan 1996 overhaul of the welfare system and creating a “culture of dependency” by allowing waivers for states for welfare work requirements.
The Obama White House and former President Bill Clinton, who signed the 1996 law, called the Romney camp’s claim false.
Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew raves from conservatives in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina when they addressed welfare and other entitlement programs during the Republican primary race. Romney’s campaign has used Gingrich and Santorum, both popular with the party base, as surrogates to criticize Obama on welfare.
“Romney’s welfare attack will certainly be welcome red meat for the base,” McKinnon said.
Still, several nervous conservatives are looking for more signals from Romney that he won’t go wobbly on them this fall.
Craig Robinson, editor of TheIowaRepublican.com political news Website, said Romney wasted a chance to send a strong signal to the Republican base by not firmly weighing in on the controversy over comments by Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy that his restaurant chain is “very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee launched a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” earlier this month and implored people to eat at the restaurants to show their support for Cathy.
Huckabee, Santorum, Gingrich and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made comments supportive of Cathy. Romney demurred, saying, “I’m not going to tell other people what to talk about.”
Gingrich believes Romney would benefit by engaging on the issue.
“I certainly think that the Romney campaign would be smart to serve Chick-fil-A at the convention for one occasion,” Gingrich told the conservative Website Newsmax earlier this month. “I think that would send a pretty clear signal to people without having done very much except to make it happen.”