HOUSTON — If Mitt Romney is like every other Republican presidential nominee in recent memory, he will choose a major issue or two on which to move to the center to woo independent voters and soft Democrats.
It would be a textbook move for a candidate who has clinched the nomination, as Romney did in Texas on Tuesday. But the question is whether the former Massachusetts governor can pull it off given the suspicions many conservatives expressed about his ideological leanings during the contentious primary.
Conservative activists warn that Romney still has much work to do to earn their trust. But several GOP strategists said in interviews that making a major play for the middle might be unnecessary given his image as a moderate Republican governor from a liberal New England state — the same image that caused him so much trouble in the primary.
“It’s Mitt Romney. All he has to say is: ‘I was governor of Massachusetts.’ It takes away his wing-nut status,” said a Washington, D.C., GOP operative who has helped raise money for Romney. “The talk-radio conservatives beat the crap out of him for months that he was too moderate. Well, guess what? That’s not going to hurt him now.”
“I think he has an easier job moving to the center than past nominees. I don’t think any conservative with knowledge of Romney’s record and background thinks he’s a hard-core guy,” added a second Republican operative who is also based in D.C.
Romney officially secured the nomination Tuesday evening, but he has been the de facto 2012 GOP standard-bearer since early April when former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) exited the race. To arrive here, Romney survived brutal attacks from a mostly lackluster Republican field on his 25-year business career as a venture capitalist — Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused him of being a “vulture capitalist” — and his governing record during his term as Massachusetts’ chief executive, ending in 2006.
The attack by Romney’s opponents on this part of his résumé, crystallized by former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) label of Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate,” caused the ex-governor and 2008 presidential candidate the biggest political challenge in his second nomination quest. Conservative activists complained about Romney’s past moderation on social issues and authorship of a Massachusetts state health care program similar to President Barack Obama’s federal health care law.
Some conservative activists argue that winning hasn’t solved Romney’s tenuous relationship with the GOP base, however driven it is to oust Obama. Jon Fleischman, a tea party conservative from Orange County, Calif., conceded that Obama’s reputation on the right as a staunch leftist helps Romney with the Republican base. But he said Romney does not yet have the political capital to move to the center risk-free because activists do not view him as a “tried and tested conservative.”