02.18.10, 4:00 PM ET
This week thousands of conservative activists, pundits and politicians are gathering in Washington, D.C., for the Conservative Political Action Conference. The big question is: Who will emerge as the Republican Party’s leader? Each year CPAC conducts a straw pool to take the so-called bases’ temperature, with Teams Romney, Palin, Huckabee and Paul attracting the most impassioned support in recent years.
For the past few Februarys CPAC has unofficially been the Mitt Romney Show. He has won the vote three consecutive years, even as he dramatically bowed out of contention for the Republican nomination two years ago to John McCain. That moment, while disappointing to his supporters, demonstrated the kind of man Romney is, as he insisted that the Party’s interests should come first.
Since then, Romney has been nothing but the good soldier. He selflessly campaigned for John McCain, raising money and often justifying a Republican approach to the economy–even after McCain passed over him and gave the vice-presidential nod to the ill-prepared Sarah Palin.
He continues to dedicate resources to the re-election campaigns of several high-profile Republicans, and he was instrumental in Scott Brown’s stunning upset victory last month for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, sharing his campaign infrastructure with Brown and helping him raise much-needed funds. When Romney addressed the CPAC crowd on Thursday, he even shared the stage briefly with Brown and repeatedly praised the newly minted junior senator. He then described Obama’s “self-proclaimed B+” grade as “one of the biggest exaggerations since Al Gore’s invention of the Internet.”
While much of Romney’s work the past year has been under the radar, and he has yet to announce any plans for 2012, he recently named high-profile political operative Matt Rhoades executive director of his Free and Strong America PAC, an indication that he is laying the groundwork for another run. He also has a book, No Apology, due out next month, which should raise his visibility as the spokesman for the GOP.
For Romney, the timing couldn’t be better. President Obama’s approval ratings have sunk to unthinkable lows given his popularity just a year ago. The same group of voters–independents–who represented the difference for Obama in 2008 have soured on him, and Romney is precisely the kind of Republican candidate, unlike a Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee, who could court those voters in significant numbers.
His track record as a private equity turnaround artist and experience as a highly competent administrator are exactly the kinds of credentials that many other Republican candidates lack, which is one of the reasons why more highly educated voters have felt increasingly alienated from the Party in recent years. It’s why even Wall Street, a traditional Republican stronghold, leaned Blue in the last election.
Romney could rectify that. He is the most qualified of all the major contenders, possessing an understanding of finance and the economy that no other Republican frontrunner can claim. His private sector experience demonstrates, at a time when nothing is less popular, that he isn’t a career politician.
Some conservatives still may not trust him because they don’t regard him as an ideological puritan, like, say, Sarah Palin, but that is precisely why Romney is a strong national candidate. He is conservative but also pragmatic, a quality that the conservative standard bearer, Ronald Reagan, possessed, and a characteristic that still defines the American polity. Romney may also need to develop a more coherent justification for signing health care reform in Massachusetts that was strikingly similar to Obama’s plan–which Romney opposed–but he is at least capable of debating the issue at the finer levels, rather than speaking in broad talking points.
Had the economic disaster in 2008 struck months earlier than it did, Romney very likely would have been the Republican nominee, and might even be the President today. While the timing did not work in his favor then, it could in 2012, as the economy is still likely to be the biggest issue. Romney is best positioned to capitalize on that.
Chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, Jay Sekulow, who introduced Romney to the CPAC crowd, said that the country “needs a leader with a proven record who understands the economy and the global challenges America faces.”
Romney is also capable of raising the kind of money and creating the type of political machine needed to seriously challenge Obama, who, no matter what the poll numbers say, will be a formidable candidate for his fundraising and organizational skills alone.
Much can still happen before the next presidential election, but Gov. Romney is clearly the most serious Republican candidate and their best chance of making Obama a one-term President. With any luck, conservatives will prove once again this week that they already appreciate that and have learned from their mistakes of 2008.