Kurtz: Why Mitt is the best fit for the GOP in 2012

Michael Kurtz

In the least surprising development since Leonardo DiCaprio died at the end of “Titanic,” former Gov. of Massachusetts Mitt Romney declared on Monday that he would form a presidential exploratory committee. This makes it all but official that he will bid for the White House in 2012. Despite his second place finish in the 2008 Republican primary, his high name recognition and his picture-perfect head of hair, media mavens and conservative commentators – from Mark Halperin of Time to Rich Lowry of National Review – have doubted Romney’s political viability in both the primary and the general election. Their reasons sound plausible at first. In a party heavily influenced by Evangelical Christians – many of whom still view the LDS church with suspicion, he’s a Mormon who has flip-flopped on major social issues and championed a healthcare law that closely resembles President Obama’s plan. But conventional wisdom has overblown his weaknesses and undersold his strengths. The businessman from Boston is the prohibitive front-runner and the GOP’s best bet to beat Barack next year.

Take, for example, his apostasies on abortion and immigration. It is true that in 1994, Romney declared that “abortion should be safe and legal in this country” before disavowing that stance during the 2008 election. He also supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as governor before opposing it as a candidate. But neither reversal, however transparent, will sink him. Voters simply don’t care enough. Their concerns lie with the fledgling economy and anemic employment figures. A January Pew survey reported that job creation and economic growth represented the most pressing policy concerns for 87 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents. Healthcare reform, widely considered Romney’s Achilles Heel, trailed close behind. His plan, passed in 2006, has troubled some movement conservatives because it shares the individual mandate provision – that all adults must buy insurance to prevent free riders from passing emergency healthcare costs onto taxpayers – with the Affordable Care Act of last March. To defend himself, Romney has claimed that Obama’s federal law represented liberal overreach whereas his Massachusetts plan exemplified conservative restraint. This response has held up well so far. Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of likely Republican primary voters found Romney leading a five-candidate field including Pawlenty, Barbour, Gingrich and Bachmann, by 20 percentage points.

The Republican donor class doesn’t seem concerned with the intricacies of healthcare policy either. They’ve helped Romney build political and fundraising operations of unequalled prowess. His Political Action Committee raised over $6.3 million in 2010 and spent over $725,000 of that haul to support and endorse more than 100 Republican candidates nationally, including the governors of key caucus state Iowa and crucial primary state South Carolina. He will have many favors to call in when the time comes. He even out-raised the president ($1.5 million to $1.3 million) as the two headlined dueling Manhattan fundraisers in the space of a few days last May.

Moreover, let’s remember that Republicans often reward retread candidates, such as Nixon, Reagan and Bush I. In this vein, Romney paid his dues four years ago, winning Nevada and taking second in both New Hampshire and key battlegrounds Florida and Virginia.

There is also the religious issue. Although many political pundits suggested that Evangelical disdain for Mormons would ruin Romney down South, this is an exaggerated fear. As a first-time candidate, he competed gamely, finishing a respectable third in Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, behind favorite son Mike Huckabee – who doesn’t seem to be running this time around – and party veteran John McCain.

Indeed, his faith could prove a political asset. Just as African-Americans flocked to Obama’s candidacy, the nation’s overwhelmingly Republican six million Mormons may embrace the notion of having one of their own in the White House. We could see another groundswell of pride, donations, votes and activism.

Lastly, the Republicans have eschewed the winner-take-all model in favor of proportional representation for the 2012 primary season in many states. This will reward the candidate who has the strongest, broadest organization, the deepest pockets and the savvy to survive a bruising campaign. Mitt has the money, the experience and the support to outlast his rivals.

Michael Kurtz is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected] Illustration by Morgan Krehbiel.