Frontrunner Challenged: Romney Fails to Enthuse

The former Massachusetts governor is still on top, but conservatives aren’t warming up to him yet.

Mitt Romney seems poised to secure the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. The former Massachusetts governor has seen most of his rivals’ campaigns implode around him but few American conservatives are warming up to the prospect of a Romney candidacy.

The latest conservative darling, Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives during the 1990s, isn’t likely to be nominated. Married thrice and prone to making bombastic pronouncements about his leadership capacities, social conservatives mistrust him and centrist voters would probably not prefer him over Barack Obama in a general election. They remember his tumultuous speakership when the Republicans’ intransigence forced a federal government shutdown in 1995 and 1996.

Gingrich’s newfound popularity follows former businessman Herman Cain’s demise in the polls as he struggles with allegations of sexual harassment. His surge was anticipated by the spectacular rise and fall of Texas governor Rick Perry who had been hailed as the right’s redeemer only to disappoint in the candidates’ debates. Last month, he failed to remember one of the three departments of government he would like to dismantle on live television — a painful moment for Perry who has to transcend his cowboy image if he is to be nominated.

Perry’s “brain freeze” notwithstanding, he’s not out of the running altogether. The conservative base of the Republican Party is desperately looking for an alternative to Romney while the first primary contest is less than a month away.

The heir presumptive to the nomination, who was considered a frontrunner for the 2008 election but lost the primary race against John McCain, hasn’t managed to enthuse party activists with his managerial style and finely tuned debate performances. What’s more, they aren’t too sure about Romney’s convictions.

Romney, who governed in the liberal state of Massachusetts before he ran for his party’s presidential nomination, declared himself in favor of abortion rights before he became pro-life. He was in favor of gun control before he wasn’t. And in Massachusetts, he enacted a health-care reform scheme that included a mandate that people buy insurance — the very tenet of President Obama’s health reform legislation which conservatives so staunchly opposed.

Creating jobs and reviving the American economy may be the most important themes of the November election but committed conservatives aren’t quick to forgive Romney for the moderate positions he has held in the past.

Recently, he’s tried a more populist approach — advocating military action against Iran and enacting punitive tariffs against China — but Romney isn’t advancing in the polls. During the 2008 primary contest, he never managed to win more than roughly 25 percent of the Republican vote nationwide. He’s struggled to maintain his lead at over 20 percent during the current election cycle.

Even in one on one polls, when he is pitted against fringe candidates like Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, who stand no chance of winning a general election, half of the Republican electorate won’t vote for Mitt Romney. These are several tens of millions of conservative Americans who prefer any candidate over their frontrunner. They are a force to be reckoned with.

Romney is unlikely to do well in Iowa where right-wing voters tend to be more conservative than in most of the rest of the United States. The January caucuses will probably be won by one of the social conservatives in the race. Romney isn’t even campaigning there. He could do well in the first primary election in New Hampshire where Republicans are more centrist and independents are allowed to vote as well but he will probably lose in South Carolina which is, again, a very conservative state.

If, by the time of the South Carolina primary late in January, the conservative base of the Republican Party has coalesced around a single candidate like Rick Perry, who has the most extended campaign besides Romney’s and an impressive war chest to finance radio and television commercials, Romney could be hard pressed to retain his lead in Florida and Nevada, the fourth and fifth primary states respectively, where he now maintains narrow leads in the polls.

Even in Florida, which is home to millions of retirees who are skeptical of Herman Cain’s and Rick Perry’s plans for pension privatization, Romney hasn’t been able to boost his popularity north of 25 percent.

Although conservatives aren’t warming up to Romney, they are adjusting to the probability of his candidacy. More than half of likely Republican voters expect that he will be the nominee even if they don’t want him to be.

Party heavyweights like New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who had been encouraged by conservative opinion leaders to run for the nomination but declined, as well as his former rival Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race when his poll numbers wouldn’t approve, have thrown their support behind Romney, adding to the aura of inevitability that his campaign has tried to foster.

It would be ironic and quite possibly a disappointment for the Republican Party to settle on a traditional, pro-business candidate like Romney after the Tea Party rebellion of 2010 helped Republicans regain their majority in the House of Representatives.

The conservative “revolution” that swept not just Washington but dozens of states where Republican legislatures and governorships turned red again after the Democratic victory wave of 2008 could extinguish with a Romney candidacy. He may appeal to the center but he isn’t liked on the right. If this translates into a lack of grassroots activism and volunteer campaigning for him in November of next year, when America’s economic prospects may have slowly started to improve, it could even cost Romney the general election.