I’ll get back to more about my trip to Australia directly, but wanted to draw attention to a significant article by National Review’s Byron York about likely 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s growing credibility gap with his main political target: true-believer conservatives.York reports from South Carolina that Republicans in that key conservative primary state are getting emails (from whom, it is not clear, though you could make a few guesses) recounting past statements by the Mittster, particularly during his 1994 campaign against Ted Kennedy, that professed him to be pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, and most shocking of all, disrespectful of Ronald Reagan.None of this is exactly breaking news. But given Romney’s surprisingly successful efforts in recent months to market himself to conservative opinion-leaders as the True Conservative Alternative to John McCain and Rudy Guiliani, the possible impact of greater publicity about his “changes of heart” on cultural issues in a place like South Cackalacki is a big challenge for Romney. And York, a reliable old-school reporter, seems to think revelations about the very recent vintage of Mitt’s conversion to the Right-to-Life and Anti-Gay causes are causing more heartburn in the Palmetto State than a big plate of fried food at Lizard Thicket (Columbia’s fine southern cuisine chain).
For some, the concern stems not from any single, disqualifying position, but rather a combination of statements from Romney’s political career. “When it becomes a pattern, that’s what causes people to be fearful,” says Oran Smith, head of the pro-life Palmetto Family Council, who has not committed to any candidate in the race. “The Reagan thing, the abortion thing, the gay thing — if you mix all of that together, is there a pattern?”
The most interesting tale being circulated is Romney’s own account of achieving satori on abortion after a briefing on stem cell research about two years ago. Aside from the late-life nature of this conversion, it just seems wrong. Most people opposing stem cell research do so because they are already convinced full-fledged human life begins at conception. It doesn’t usually work the other way around.If Romney is indeed running into trouble with cultural conservatives on his record, it will compound another problem he has with the same group: his own Mormon faith. Despite the LDS church’s own exceptional congruence with the political and cultural views of conservative evangelical Christians, deep suspicions remain. A Rasmussen survey taken in November shows that 43 percent of Americans, and 53 percent of evangelical Christians, say they would not even consider voting for a Mormon candidate for president. That’s a big hurdle for Romney to overcome.If Romney does succumb early to these various handicaps, it’s not clear who, if anyone, could replace him as the Great Right Hope to continue the Bush legacy, tarnished as it is. Sure, McCain might succeed in consolidating his repositioning as a True Conservative, but it would come at a considerable price in terms of his broader Maverick reputation. Maybe conservatives would forgive Guiliani for heretical views if he “flipped” somewhat on abortion or gay rights, even later in the game than Romney. And perhaps someone like Brownback or Huckabee will emerge as a credible candidate.But at present, it ain’t looking good for the culture warriors who thought they had permanently conquered the GOP when George W. Bush beat John McCain in 2000–in South Carolina.