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The more often Republican primary voters see and hear Romney talking about big government, high taxes and immigration, the greater the chance that they may ultimately conclude that the former governor is acceptably conservative.
Many conservatives, of course, will never accept Romney. For them, his sincerity is and will always be in doubt.
But Romney doesn’t need to become the conservatives’ favorite. He merely needs to become acceptable to them, at least as long as they don’t find an alternative about whom they can become excited.
Fundamentally, Romney needs to follow the path of Sen. John McCain in 2008 — at least to the point when the Arizonan wrapped up his party’s nomination in the spring of that year.
McCain was never the darling of conservatives, and they embraced his candidacy only after he selected former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his running mate and the presidential contest was fully engaged, making it a choice between two increasingly ideological parties. Similarly, conservatives would embrace Romney against Obama next year.
That Romney has become the 2012 version of McCain surely is one of the great ironies in the race, considering the animosity that each man felt for the other at the end of the 2008 GOP contest.
Perry still has a window of opportunity to establish himself as the conservative alternative to Romney, but as one Republican strategist told me recently, it is closing rapidly.
“Perry’s attacks on Romney are a huge mistake,” the strategist said. “There is no need to attack a guy stuck at 27 percent in the polls. Perry’s biggest problem is Perry, not Romney. The main thing Perry needs to do is to get people to like him.”
That makes sense to me.
Any true-blue conservative in the GOP race doesn’t need to peel supporters off the former Massachusetts governor. He or she merely needs to become “the” alternative for the three-quarters of Republican primary voters who so far haven’t backed the best-known, most-polished GOP presidential hopeful.
Attacking Romney may make Perry feel good, but it won’t make the Texan appear more likable or presidential.
Few insiders expect Romney to make a major mistake in the next few months. He regards planning and preparation as absolutely crucial, so he rarely improvises. That makes him both the man to beat in the GOP race and also the candidate that many Republican voters can’t, and won’t, get excited about.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.