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Mitt Romney’s Weakness Is Also Strength — or Is It?

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s contradictory policy positions could work in his favor, allowing voters to ascribe their views to him, or could hurt him if voters decide they can’t trust him, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Iím not sure we have ever seen a candidate quite like Mitt Romney.

For years, ever since he started running against Sen. John McCain for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Romney has tried to position himself to the right. In fact, four years ago, he succeeded in positioning himself as one of two conservative alternatives (the other being former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee) to the Arizona Senator.

The exit poll from the Florida GOP primary on Jan. 29, 2008, when McCain narrowly beat Romney, 36 percent to 31 percent, and Huckabee came in a weak fourth, showed Romney rallying Republican conservatives who could not accept McCain.

In that contest, Romney won primary voters who thought abortion should be illegal, while McCain won those who thought it should be legal. Romney won weekly church attendees, while McCain won those who went occasionally or never. Romney won those satisfied with or enthusiastic about President George W. Bush, while McCain won those dissatisfied or angry.

But donít stop there. Romney won voters who wanted to deport illegal immigrants, while McCain won those who favored temporary worker status or even a path to citizenship. Romney won conservatives, while McCain won moderates and liberals. Romney and Huckabee tied to win white evangelicals, while McCain won nonevangelicals.

This cycle, Romney has run right again, to establish his conservative credentials, but he has not been successful. Instead, each and every week, he has performed best among the same voters who chose McCain over him four years ago ó and he has done least well among those demographic groups that supported him in 2008.

Romneyís great problem in the GOP race, as pretty much everyone has already observed, is that conservatives donít really believe that he is one of them.

Despite all his conservative rhetoric ó on taxes, government spending, traditional marriage, immigration, abortion and health care ó conservatives arenít buying it. They believe that Romney is simply pandering to them because he knows that is what he needs to do to lock up the Republican nomination.

Whether it is his multiple positions over the years on abortion, his support for an individual mandate in Massachusetts, his Mormon faith or simply his profile as a wealthy, impeccably dressed businessman, the most conservative Republican voters (many of whom are evangelicals) donít believe that he is a passionate conservative who is ready to take on the political establishment.

Whatís interesting about Romney and his supporters is that, despite his conservative rhetoric, moderates and country club conservatives continue to support his candidacy.

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