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Mitt Romney’s Reputation May Mean a New Playbook

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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.”

“The dominant conversation that takes place amongst conservative activists is how to get motivated for a nominee who at times seems to lack a defining ideology,” said Fleischman, who publishes and writes for flashreport.org. “His job is not done.”

Democrats have been trying to paint Romney as too extreme since early in the Republican primary campaign and would contend that the former Massachusetts governor is anything but a good fit for independents, centrists and other swing voters. The Obama campaign has been hard at work trying to turn Romney’s business experience into a negative, while also hammering him on what his positions would mean for women, a key voting bloc currently leaning toward the president.

Republicans concede that the issue of immigration could prove politically problematic for Romney. During the primary he staked out a defined stance in favor of strong enforcement of the border with Mexico. Any attempt to soften this position to improve his support among Hispanics — where he lags dangerously — could revive charges that the governor is a “flip-flopper” and do him significant harm with conservatives and other voting demographics.

But absent that issue, GOP campaign advisers believe Romney is occupying the political sweet spot as the general election campaign against Obama gets under way in earnest. The economic recovery has been tepid and slow, enabling Romney to charge that Obama has failed on the No. 1 issue voters care about, while styling his own message around job creation and raising incomes and security for those who are employed.

This campaign theme cuts across party lines naturally, and as long as Romney can rely on it to prosecute his case against the president, an overt move to the center on an issue that might raise the eyebrows of wary conservatives might not be necessary, Republicans assert.

Still, that doesn’t mean Romney can avoid taking politically tricky positions on issues, as he did when he crossed many Congressional Republicans and joined Obama to support spending taxpayer dollars to keep student-loan interest rates from rising. Unlike Obama, the former Massachusetts governor argued for spending cuts elsewhere to pay for extension of the loan program. He took some heat from conservatives but generally survived the debate unscathed.  

“He’ll be fine with centrist voters. His manner is mild, he’s not associated with any far-right issues and his economic message is modulated for swing voters,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican consultant. “The issue he needs to show some pivot on is immigration; it’s the only issue he really went hard-right on in his rhetoric.”

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