Mitt Romney is The Natural.
As a piece of raw, political horse flesh, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts may be one of the great talents of his generation: good-looking, whip-smart, funny, charismatic, and, by nearly every account, a genuinely decent man. All of which plus his personal fortune, reportedly in the hundreds of millions makes him a formidable candidate for the Republican nomination.
Romney is a moderate, yet he decided to position himself on the conservative side of the draw as he runs for president. Smart politics. It means that, in the early phases of the nomination fight, he will be jousting with second-tier candidates such as Sam Brownback and Newt Gingrich instead of fighting for space with the two moderate heavyweights: John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
But Romney's conservative strategy hit its first speed bump recently when footage from his 1994 senatorial debate with Ted Kennedy appeared on the Internet. In that race, Romney was attempting to position himself as a more competent version of Kennedy himself. So when Kennedy tried to paint Romney as a Reagan-Bush conservative, Romney strenuously objected, saying: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Asked about affirmative action and discrimination, Romney said that there definitely was a "glass ceiling" holding back women and minorities and that "I believe that public companies and federal agencies should be required to report in their annual 10K the number of minorities and women by income group within the company so we can identify where the glass ceiling is and break through it."
Then there was the matter of abortion. Romney claimed to be a long-standing supporter of it. He said: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate. I believe that, since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it. And I sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice." When Kennedy quipped that Romney had been "multiple choice" on abortion, Romney defensively retorted: "My mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on [abortion]. And you will not see me wavering on that. Or be multiple choice. Thank you very much."
As the video began making the rounds, the Romney camp went into full damage-control mode, trying to reassure conservatives that he had changed his mind and had been, as he delicately put it, "wrong on some issues back then." You can see why they might be worried: Romney had claimed that his belief in the protection of abortion actually predated Roe - which was handed down in 1973. And in calling for abortion to be "safe" and "legal," he hadn't even added the "rare" fig leaf.
In truth, Romney's pro-life conversion story isn't very compelling. By 2002, when he was running for governor, Romney no longer identified himself as pro-choice. He now says that he realized abortion was wrong in 2004. He was brought to this realization, he says, while examining the issue of stem-cell research.
Moral reasoning on the sanctity of life does not typically flow in that direction. It's a bit like an atheist being brought to Christianity on the strength of Intelligent Design theory.
(For whatever it's worth, Romney also now puts Reagan on his list of great and admirable presidents.)
But conservatives probably have little to worry about with Romney. As a politician, he has proven that, when he makes a promise to a constituency, he sticks. For instance, when he was running for governor in 2002, he may have been having misgivings about abortion, but Romney promised voters that he would have a "moratorium" on state abortion law and wouldn't try to change it. And even when he realized that abortion was morally repugnant, two years later, he kept his word on the "moratorium."
If there is a conservative concern about Romney, it shouldn't be with his ideological moorings, but rather with his electoral record.
Romney has one primary victory to his credit (from 1994, when he captured the Republican senatorial nomination) and one general-election victory (his 2002 gubernatorial win). Against that, he lost his 1994 Senate campaign, did not have a primary opponent in 2002, and withdrew from seeking reelection in 2006 because he had almost no chance of winning. Republicans might wonder how Romney will fare against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida and Pennsylvania when he couldn't handle rookie candidate Deval Patrick as an incumbent governor in Massachusetts.
But great politicians are able to work around such worries and Romney is a seriously great politician. In fact, he might well be the GOP's Bill Clinton, only without the personal baggage. Should Republicans decide they need a Clinton to beat a Clinton in 2008, then Romney could be their man.